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“It’s a Cover-Up, Not a Clean-Up”: Nuclear Waste Smolders in Sites Across the US via Truthout

Renowned wartime journalist Wilfred Burchett described the damage from the atomic bomb that flattened Hiroshima as “far greater than photographs can show.” When it comes to the enduring legacy of the Manhattan Project on home soil, the damage to the environment and human health is proving similarly hard to grasp.

The covert project to create the world’s first atomic weapon during WWII, coupled with the nuclear proliferation of the Cold War era, has left a trail of toxic and radioactive waste at sites across the nation that will necessitate, by some margin, the largest environmental cleanup in the nation’s history. The amount of money that has been poured into remediating the waste already is staggering. Still, it appears that the scale of the problems, and the efforts needed to effectively tackle them, continue to be underestimated by the authorities responsible for their cleanup.

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Hanford: Beset With Costly Overruns

Hanford, Washington, is a Manhattan Project era facility perched on the lip of the Columbia River, and the scene of the largest single radioactive remediation in the US. Last year, the DOE championed “20 successful years” of environmental cleanup at Hanford, which was decommissioned in the 1980s. Fifty-six million gallons of toxic waste were subsequently stored away in 177 large tanks, some of which have leaked high-level radioactive sludge into the environment. Efforts to build a pretreatment plant for this waste — with the idea of sending that treated waste to adjacent facilities for final processing — have, for years, been beset with costly overruns, as well as administrative and corporate failings.

The cost for treating the 56 million gallons of waste alone now sits at $16.8 billion. The projected cost of cleaning the rest of the facility? $107.7 billion. That’s not all. At least a million gallons of radioactive waste have leaked into and polluted the waters of the Columbia River, contaminating fish eaten by Indigenous people in the area, and threatening drinking water supplies for communities downriver.

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Oak Ridge: “70 Years of Neglect”

The DOE’s 33,500-acre Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee was a uranium processing facility during the Manhattan Project. It has since been divided into three major cleanup sites. Still active, Oak Ridge is perhaps most notorious for widespread mercury pollution. The DOE estimates that roughly 700,000 million pounds of mercury stemming from the plant has contaminated the soils, and surface and ground waters both on and off the base for decades. The construction of a mercury treatment facility — to treat up to 3,000 gallons of contaminated water per minute — begins next year but won’t be fully operational until 2022.

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Los Alamos National Laboratory: Remaining Cleanup Underestimated?

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico was the scientific nerve center of the Manhattan Project. It was here that the nuclear devices used in the first atomic tests of 1945 were made. A 46-page DOE cost estimate published last year lists 17 separate areas scattered throughout the some 38 square-mile Los Alamos site still to be tackled, including unlined disposal pits, leaking underground storage tanks, polluted hillsides and canyon bottoms, waste landfills and old contaminated buildings. At one site alone, some 3,882 metal drums and 191 fiberglass-reinforced plywood boxes containing transuranic wastes (a specific category of radioactive waste) are sitting in a pit waiting to be disposed of.

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West Lake: “It’s Pretty Devastating”

In North St. Louis County, Missouri, next door to residential communities, sits West Lake landfill, where roughly 45,000 tons of soil mixed with radioactive Manhattan Project-era waste was illegally dumped back in 1973. As close as 700 feet from the buried radioactive waste is an underground fire that has been slowly smoldering for at least six years.

The Manhattan Project-era radioactive waste that ended up at West Lake took a circuitous route to its current destination. The waste was originally stored at the Mallinckrodt chemical plant in downtown St. Louis, until the plant began shipping it to the St. Louis airport in the 1940s. In the 1960s, a company that had bought the airport waste then trucked it to another property in St. Louis, before the waste was taken in the early 1970s to nearby West Lake, where it has remained ever since.

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Concerns About the Future

Hanford, Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and West Lake provide only a snapshot of the wider picture. Consider the Rocky Flats Plant, a former nuclear weapons production site not far from Denver, Colorado. Rocky Flats wasn’t part of the Manhattan Project — it wasn’t used to manufacture nuclear weapons until the Cold War era — but it’s still a glaring example of the pervasiveness of the nation’s ongoing nuclear headache.

Officially, the cleanup at Rocky Flats was finished over 10 years ago, at a total cost of some $7 billion. It has frequently been championed as a success story. But some experts are concerned about plutonium that remains buried there. “It’s a cover-up, not a cleanup,” said former Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments member Mary Harlow, about efforts to remediate the site.

Read more at “It’s a Cover-Up, Not a Clean-Up”: Nuclear Waste Smolders in Sites Across the US

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