The demand for atomic energy is in decline. But before the country can abandon its plants, there’s six decades of waste to deal with.
It was just another day in the life of the defunct Hanford nuclear site, a remote part of Washington State that made most of the plutonium in America’s Cold War arsenal. On the morning of May 9, 2017, alarms sounded. Around 2,000 site workers were told to take cover indoors, and aircraft were banned from flying over the site for several hours. The roof of a tunnel had collapsed, exposing railcars that had been loaded with radioactive waste from plutonium production and then shunted underground and sealed in decades before.
There was other stuff down there too. Nobody quite knew what. Record keeping was poor, but the contents of the tunnels certainly included carcasses from animal radiation experiments, including a reported 18 alligators. The emergency lasted only a few hours. The integrity of the waste was restored. But it was a chilling reminder of the site’s perilous radioactive legacy.
Sprawling across 600 square miles of sagebrush semidesert, Hanford is a $100 billion cleanup burden, full of accidents waiting to happen. It is the biggest headache, but very far from being the only one, emerging in what increasingly look like the final years of America’s nuclear age.
Oyster Creek in New Jersey disconnects from the grid in October with 11 years left on its license. Indian Point in New York State is to shut by 2021 due to falling revenues and rising costs. In California, Diablo Canyon is being closed by state regulators in 2025. The reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania that survived the 1979 accident will finally shut in 2019.
Shutdown is only the beginning of the end. Final closure and clearance of the sites can take decades, and the waste crisis created by decommissioning cannot be dodged. Lethal radioactive material is accumulating at dozens of power plants, military facilities, and interim stores across the country.
Some, like the train cars buried at Hanford, is evidently in a precarious situation. Much more needs urgent attention. Cleaning up and safely disposing of the residues of the nuclear adventure—much of it waste with a half-life measured in tens of thousands of years—is turning into a trillion-dollar nightmare for the nation.
Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge is an oasis of prairie biodiversity covering 5,000 acres, home to prairie dogs, elk, monarch butterflies, and rare xeric grasses. It also serves as a buffer zone around the site of the largest completed nuclear cleanup to date in the United States. And David Lucas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to open it for public access in summer 2018. He’s reckoning on 150,000 visitors a year.
During the Cold War, Rocky Flats was secretly machining plutonium manufactured at Hanford into some 70,000 spheres that formed the explosive heart of each weapon in Uncle Sam’s nuclear arsenal. Plutonium pollution was routine. The plant had nowhere to get rid of the day-to-day plutonium waste, which was often dumped in hastily dug landfills or sprayed onto grassland around the plant. At an outdoor compound known as pad 903, where more than 5,000 drums of waste liquids contaminated with plutonium are stored, there’s been substantial leakage. An internal memo reported that rabbits living on the site were heavily contaminated, especially in their hind feet.
A whistle-blower’s allegations about illegal late-night incineration of plutonium waste at the plant led to an FBI raid in 1989.
The true heartland of America’s nuclear enterprise has always been Hanford. And it is the biggest and most toxic cleanup legacy too. Straddling the Columbia River, the Hanford nuclear reservation was America’s primary bomb-making factory. It was where they made the plutonium. At peak production, during the 1960s, its nine reactors irradiated 7,000 metric tons of uranium fuel annually. The intense radiation inside the reactors produced plutonium that was then extracted at five reprocessing plants. Hanford produced a total of 67 metric tons of the metal for the American arsenal, before business halted after the Cold War ended.
But the headline Hanford problem is the 56 million gallons of acidic and highly radioactive liquids and sludges, stored in 177 giant tanks, each up to 75 feet in diameter. They are the solvent leftovers from reprocessing, and contain around twice the total radioactivity released from the world’s worst nuclear accident to date, the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine.
Read more at The 60-Year Downfall of Nuclear Power in the U.S. Has Left a Huge Mess
This post is adapted from Pearce’s new book.