After decades of mismanaging its nuclear waste, the US Department of Energy wrestles with its toxic legacy.
Garza’s experience is common among Hanford workers; in July 2021, a new state report found that a shocking 57 percent of Hanford workers have reported exposure to hazardous materials. But as dangerous as they are, the toxic vapors Garza’s crew encountered aren’t necessarily the tanks’ worst hazard. It wouldn’t take much for a tank to fuel a massive explosion, one that Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, says could spread radiation over a staggering area: Washington, Idaho, Oregon, “probably Utah and maybe Canada, depending on the wind direction and speed.” And some of the tanks at Hanford reached the end of their design life during the Vietnam War. As the site’s infrastructure ages, it’s hard to overstate the danger. Carpenter warns that the consequences of a tank fire would be on the order of Fukushima. (Dan Serres, conservation director of Columbia Riverkeeper, points toward Chernobyl.)
The Department of Energy (DOE) has adopted a closed-door approach to managing nuclear sites, which exacerbates anxieties over these risks. (The DOE declined multiple requests for interviews during the reporting of this article.) “It’s fine to have autonomy for a program that needs a certain amount of secrecy,” says Mark Henry, the section manager for radiological emergency preparedness at the Washington State Department of Health. “But radioactive material getting into the general public does not need autonomy.” As the local newspaper, the Tri-City Herald, reports, this has happened multiple times in the last five years, such as when a building demolition released plutonium dust that blew for miles, or when plutonium and americium particles contaminated workers’ cars, including a rental later returned to the company.
This string of mishaps is compounded by extraordinary pressure on the DOE’s budget, which requires congressional approval every year, and has not grown in proportion to costs. In a 2019 report, the DOE extended its timeline for cleaning up Hanford’s waste until 2100; meanwhile, its aging infrastructure has only heightened safety concerns and escalated expenses. In 2018, the DOE’s own estimates of their financial liability grew by $110 billion—almost a fifth—primarily due to an increase in the cleanup budget at Hanford.
Until 1971, Hanford’s radioactive reactor effluent was discharged straight into the Columbia River, which has long been a vital waterway to the nearby towns of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick, referred to today as the Tri-Cities. People fished in it, and unsuspecting bathers swam in it, attracted to the warmer water near the reactors, where the temperature rose by as much as five degrees. The towns still rely on the river for drinking water. Altogether, 110 million curies went into the Columbia; the site’s unofficial motto was “dilution is the solution to pollution.” From World War II to the 1970s, the Oregon Public Health Division called the Columbia the most radioactive river in the world. Yet for decades, the general public was unaware of the scope of Hanford’s contamination. Classified documents later released by the DOE show that biologists considered that it “may be necessary to close public fishing” at certain parts of the river, but public-relations and security concerns prevented them from speaking out. Local tribes, whose diets were rich in fish from the Columbia River, were particularly exposed. Ultimately, as many as two million people were exposed to Hanford’s toxic waste.
Hanford stopped producing plutonium in 1989, but the region continues to be affected by its pollution. Plumes of strontium-90 and heavy metals leaked into the groundwater, and trace amounts of tritium have been found in local milk and wine. The weight of this contamination sits heavily with Robert Franklin, an archivist at Washington State University. “If we’d stopped producing in 1945, we’d have a minuscule amount [of radioactive waste] compared to what’s out there in those tanks now,” Franklin says. Standing in a warehouse filled with relics gathered from Hanford’s past, he describes the common narrative of World War II as a story of progress and triumph. “Why build it? Why use it? Those are pretty simple questions: We were at war.” The harder question, he says, is why the mindset of wartime secrecy is still being applied to its cleanup.
Hanford’s problems, large as they are, aren’t isolated. In order to decentralize its nuclear-weapons program, the US built thirteen other nuclear defense sites across the country. Some locations processed uranium, some stored nuclear arsenal, and others were focused on research and development of nuclear technology, including testing ranges for bombs. Across the country, there are now ninety million gallons of high-level nuclear waste from different defense sites, along with around twenty-one million gallons from civilian power plants, all waiting for a permanent solution. The specific hazards vary by site, but they share a common problem: From conception to cleanup, the American nuclear-weapons program has lacked effective oversight.
Owen Hoffman, president emeritus of Oak Ridge Center for Risk Analysis, has spent his career studying radiation epidemiology, and was one of many independent scientists who took issue with the conclusions of the Dose Reconstruction study. Hoffman calls it “simply inconclusive. It was not proof that there was no harm, it was simply an underpowered study.” Most epidemiological studies, he explains, need ten thousand or more subjects. And because so much time had elapsed, the study had to use mathematical models, rather than taking environmental measurements, to estimate radiation doses. “In Chernobyl,” Hoffman says, “environmental measurements and actual measurements of peoples’ necks are very conclusive that exposure to iodine-131 leads to thyroid cancer.” Other studies around Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, the Marshall Islands, and the Nevada nuclear test sites, for example, have all found increased rates of cancer.
But in the nuclear world, you learn quickly that most statistics are debated. Industry experts often claim that the nuclear accident at Chernobyl killed just twenty-eight people. The Chernobyl Forum, a collection of eight different UN specialized agencies, suggests that Chernobyl could be responsible for more than four thousand deaths. The National Commission for Radiation Protection in Ukraine, meanwhile, claims that as many as half a million people have perished from Chernobyl’s radiation exposure. Yelena Burlakova, former chairwoman of the council on Radiobiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, disparages the lower fatality predictions tallied by the International Atomic Energy Agency, telling the scientific publication the Lancet, “The IAEA is just a lobby group for the nuclear industry, which is interested in showing there were no serious consequences.” Assessing non-fatal impacts is even trickier: Research published in the medical journal Pediatrics in 2010 found that in parts of Ukraine still contaminated with low levels of cesium-137, a type of neural tube birth defect is almost two and a half times Europe’s average. Scientists also found in 2018 that milk in parts of Ukraine still has radioactivity levels twelve times the country’s safe limit for children, and a UN report that same year found a dramatic increase in childhood thyroid cancer in exposed populations.
Generally, cancer rates worldwide are increasing, and it is often difficult to even measure radiation exposure, much less establish causation with low-level doses. Yet for those who believe their illnesses stem from radiation, this kind of official uncertainty can feel insulting. At Hanford, these debates have stymied lawsuits seeking damages for exposure. More than five thousand cases of so-called Downwinders—people who believe Hanford was responsible for their illnesses—were consolidated into a class-action lawsuit that was settled in 2015. Hoffman, who was called as an expert witness during the trial, remembers his frustration with the use of science in the lawsuit. Despite what he saw as the inconclusive nature of Hanford’s Dose Reconstruction study, its results had a definitive legal impact: For one plaintiff, the study calculated that the likelihood Hanford had caused her cancer was 35 percent. “But the uncertainty [of that figure] was greater than 50 percent,” Hoffman says. Few Downwinders received settlements; the Tri-City Herald reported that the sum paid to Downwinders paled in comparison to what the DOE spent on its own defense.
Bruce Amundson, vice president of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, who helped conduct the Dose Reconstruction study, says it had another unintended result. “It closed the door on the possibility of any other epidemiological study,” he says. “It also curtailed interest in funding at a federal level on studies at other nuclear weapons labs where releases were less dramatic.” The scientists running the study were surprised by the vitriol their results prompted among the community. Having to deal with the criticism, Amundson says, “dampened enthusiasm of other radiation epidemiology elsewhere, even if there had been funding.”
I found no evidence one way or the other of Coldiron’s sugar cubes, but one of the more notable experiments included secretly dosing eight hundred pregnant women with radioactive iron. Other research involved irradiating the testes of inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary, and feeding young boys with disabilities radioactive iron and calcium while they were enrolled in so-called nutritional studies. These secret experiments continued well into the 1980s. An investigation into these unethical practices resulted in an extensive report on decades of questionable research. The report didn’t draw much attention, as it was released on October 3, 1995—the same day as the verdict in the OJ Simpson trial.
This long history of secrecy and mistrust makes an already difficult science harder for the public to understand, or for policymakers to address. Though there are many unresolved scientific questions, the Environmental Protection Agency has long operated under the general assumption that there is no risk-free level of radiation. But in 2018, under President Trump, radiation regulations were quietly weakened, allowing for additional exposures in workplaces and homes. Supporters of the change suggest, despite mainstream scientific consensus, a little radiation might actually be good for you.
Hoffman scoffs at the notion. “There’s no level at which the risk of radiation is zero. It just means that epidemiology has a limit of detection. The risk may still be there.”
Other bureaucratic barriers make it exceedingly difficult to file these kinds of compensation claims. Until 2018, the DOE required anyone filing a claim related to exposure to identify the specific substance responsible for their illness in order to qualify for compensation. Garza had clearly been exposed to something, but the tanks hold more than 1,800 identified chemicals, along with many that haven’t been identified. As to what those substances might be, “the people most able to speculate won’t,” says union representative Nick Bumpaous.
“It’s a lonely world for a sick Hanford worker,” one home-aid caregiver, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, told me. She mentioned how, when she reported what she saw as discrepancies with another injured Hanford employee’s medical records to a DOE medical-benefits examiner, she was threatened with violating federal law for interfering. “I’m not sure whose side we’re on here,” she said. “It seems like we should be fighting for the patient.”
More than one hundred thousand workers have developed illnesses because of their employment at nuclear-weapons facilities, enough that entire cottage home-health-care industries have sprung up around nuclear sites. Yet despite efforts like the congressional compensation program of 2000, worker claims have been denied at a troubling rate. Seattle TV station KING 5 has found that Hanford workers’ claims have been denied at a rate 52 percent higher than other self-insured companies in Washington.
In March 2018, Washington State passed Substitute House Bill 1723, with the intention of making it easier for Hanford workers to receive compensation for workplace injuries without having to prove that they were caused by their employment. The Department of Labor and Industries must now presume that if a Hanford employee has certain illnesses—from respiratory diseases to many types of cancer—it was the result of an exposure at the site. The Department of Labor must prove otherwise in order to deny the claim.
But three years after the bill’s passage, Penser has continued to fight Hanford workers’ claims. People like Garza and Rouse—and the lawyers they’ve hired—report that despite the new law, Penser still regularly misses deadlines for deciding on claims, requires workers to submit documentation the law deems unnecessary, and frequently requests additional time to search for evidence. Even when a claim has been approved, Penser has stalled actual payments. After some of his conditions were approved for compensation, for instance, Rouse was informed that his deposit was being withheld pending outstanding litigation. For some of his other covered diagnoses, Penser has also denied him permanent-disability status, which means that for ongoing conditions, Rouse only receives payments a few weeks after a doctor’s appointment, then nothing until he sees the doctor again.
The state has yet to step in and force Penser to comply with the law or impose penalties. In December 2018, the DOE filed a lawsuit against the state of Washington, claiming that the new law discriminates against the agency by requiring it to do things other employers don’t, in addition to alleging that Hanford is exempt from the state law due to its status as a federal facility performing federal functions. Governor and former presidential candidate Jay Inslee vowed to fight the case, saying, “The people who fought communism shouldn’t have to fight their federal government to get the health care that they deserve.” Washington won on appeal with the Ninth Circuit last summer, but people like Garza and Rouse still haven’t gotten paid. (In 2017, after local media criticism, the DOE said they would not extend their contract with Penser when it expired; in 2019, they quietly awarded the company a new multimillion dollar contract.)
Russell Jim, a Yakama elder who managed the Yakama Nation’s Environmental Restoration and Environmental Cleanup program at the time, was horrified. “Rather than reveal to Congress and the public the actual costs of restoring the environment, DOE seems to think that ‘what they don’t know won’t hurt them,’” Jim said in one of his many speeches on Hanford. Several tribes—including the Yakama Nation, Nez Perce, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the Wanapum—have had access to sacred sites and burial grounds at Hanford restricted, while bearing the brunt of its pollution. A study conducted by the EPA in 2002 reported that tribal children from the Hanford area have an extremely elevated risk of immune diseases, and a tribal member’s risk of developing cancer from eating locally caught fish was estimated at one in fifty. Jim noted that these results—as well as a US Geological Survey study finding adverse health effects in salmon near Hanford due to hexavalent chromium, the chemical Erin Brockovich brought to fame—went unmentioned in the DOE’s environmental-impact statement. Jim insisted that an analysis of waste needed to be fully independent to ensure “transparent and credible information” before any reclassification.
In 2002, the Yakama Nation, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Snake River Alliance, and the Shoshane-Bannock Tribes, sued the DOE over its reclassification initiative, with Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and South Carolina filing “friend of the court” briefs in support. A federal district court judge in Idaho ruled in their favor, finding that the DOE did not have the authority to make this change. The DOE appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit. (The DOE would ultimately prevail a few months later.) The agency also lobbied members of Congress, who, after a fight on the floor of the Senate that ended in a one-vote margin, added a rider to the next defense-authorization bill, allowing the DOE to reclassify waste in the states of Idaho and South Carolina, but not in Washington or New York. Geoff Fettus, the senior attorney at NRDC’s Nuclear Climate & Clean Energy program, who argued the case, says, “Let’s say we fought to a draw.”
Western states—home to Los Alamos, Hanford, the Nevada testing sites—have often been considered sufficiently remote to minimize harm. “But it turns out the empty West is never as empty as people like it to be,” Richter says. She points to Eastern states’ successful rejection of a deep geologic repository. “You’re not looking for empty land, you’re looking for people who are dispossessed of power.”