By Kate Brown
Dealing with nuclear waste at a plant in Washington State has proved an intractable problem. Why?
The Nuclear Disaster You Never Heard of
This Is How TIME Explained the Atomic Bomb in 1945
In 1951, atomic optimism was booming—even when it came to radioactive waste. In fact, entrepreneurs believed that the waste might pay off in the same way that coal tar and other industrial by-products had proved useful for the plastics and chemical industries. TIME reported that Stanford Research Institutes estimated they could sell crude radioactive waste from the Hanford plutonium plant in eastern Washington State at prices ranging from ten cents to a dollar a curie (a measure of radioactive decay). Every kilogram of plutonium the plant produced spilled out hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive waste. If the entrepreneurs were right, Hanford was a gold mine.
On the other hand, maybe they were right—just not the way they intended. Corporate contractors hired to clean up Hanford have made hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and surcharges, and, since little has been accomplished, the tab promises to mount for decades. Since 1991, the US Department of Energy has missed every target for remediation of Hanford’s deadly nuclear waste. Highly radioactive fluids are seeping toward the Columbia River watershed, while in the past two years 54 clean-up workers have fallen ill from mysterious toxic vapors. Last fall, seeking to finally get some action, Washington State sued the DOE to speed up the timeline and make the project safer—but, on Dec. 5, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice rejected the request. The express schedule was too expensive, they said, despite the fact that the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is planning to spend a trillion dollars in 30 years to create a new generation of more accurate, deadly weapons. In fact, the DOE spends more money now in real dollars on nuclear weapons than it did at the height of the Cold War.
It’s never been a matter of knowing the danger. In 1944, Hanford designers understood that the radioactive by-products issuing from plutonium production were deadly. Executives from DuPont, which built the Hanford plant for the Manhattan Project, called plutonium and its by-products “super poisonous” and worried about how to keep workers and surrounding populations safe.
At the same time, DuPont engineers were rushing to make plutonium for the first Trinity test in Nevada in 1945, and they did not pause to invent new solutions to store radioactive waste. Plant managers simply disposed of the high-tech, radioactive waste the way that humans had for millennia. They buried it. Millions of gallons of radioactive effluent went into trenches, ponds, holes drilled in the ground and the Columbia River. The most dangerous waste was conducted into underground single-walled tanks meant to last ten years. Knowing the tanks would corrode, as the high-level waste ate through metal, Hanford designers planned to come up with a permanent solution in the future. They were confident in their abilities. Had they not accomplished the impossible—building from scratch in less than three years a nuclear bomb?
The explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 tore the plutonium curtain of secrecy surrounding Hanford. The newly renamed Department of Energy was forced to release thousands of documents describing how plant managers had issued into the western interior millions of curies of radioactive waste as part of the daily operating order. In the early 1990s, TIME recounted stories of people living downwind who had thyroid disease and cancer, caused, they believed, by the plant’s emissions. In 1991, the DOE resolved to clean up the Hanford site.
The agency hired the same military contractors that had managed the site while it was being polluted. Their main task involved building a state-of-the-art waste-treatment plant to turn high-level waste into glass blocks for millennia of safe storage in salt caverns. But by 1999, eight years and several billion dollars later, the DOE had to admit that its contractors had accomplished little.