Several months ago in the Star Tribune was a tiny article about nuclear waste that caught my eye. I consulted my computer and the story it gave me was important. Recently a tunnel containing radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear weapons complex collapsed at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State where dozens of tanks are leaking highly radioactive materials.
When the U.S. government built nuclear weapons, little thought was given to the permanent disposal of the resulting waste. Safely removing it is proving dangerous and complex. Much needed technology does not exist and the cleanup has been plagued with political and technical setbacks. The government spends about $6 billion annually managing waste left from nuclear weapons’ production. “The temporary solutions used for decades to contain radioactive waste at Hanford have limited lifespans,” said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a frequent critic. “The longer it takes to clean up Hanford, the higher the risk will be to workers, the public and the environment.” U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry says the nation can no longer delay fixing the problem because lives are at stake. During a recent tour of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Perry said the federal government has failed to remove the waste in a timely manner and he pledged progress.
A recently approved federal budget includes $2.3 billion for the ongoing Hanford cleanup. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee said the state will issue an order ensuring that the federal government investigates the cause of the tunnel collapse. It will also require the Energy Department to assess any risk of failures in other tunnels and take precautions to safely store waste in the tunnels until a decision is made about permanent disposal.
Officials detected no radiation and no injuries in the collapse, though thousands of workers were forced to take shelter for several hours. Cause of the collapse was not immediately known. A gravel road was built to the collapse site, and workers wearing protective suits and breathing masks planned to fill the hole with 50 truckloads of dirt according to the Energy Department. The 360-foot rail tunnel was built in 1956 out of timber, concrete and steel, topped by 8 feet of dirt. Radioactive materials were brought into the tunnel by railcars. The tunnel was sealed in 1965 with eight loaded flatbed cars inside.
A Washington state legislator, Gerry Pollet, said the collapse of the waste storage tunnel at Hanford had been feared for years. “This disaster was predicted and shows the federal Energy Department’s utter recklessness for decades of delay in the Hanford cleanup,” he said, noting the Energy Department had permission to delay removing waste from the tunnels until 2042 and adding that levels of the waste in the collapsed tunnel would be lethal within an hour, Pollet said.
Hanford, a 500-square-mile expanse in remote interior Washington about 200 miles from Seattle, was created during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Most of the plutonium for the nuclear weapons, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, originated there. It now contains the nation’s greatest volume of radioactive waste left over from the production of weapons plutonium. The cleanup so far has cost $19 billion and is not expected to be finished until 2060, at an additional cost of $100 billion. The most dangerous waste at Hanford is 56 million gallons of waste stored in 177 underground tanks, some of which have leaked.
Plans to embed the toxic stew in glass logs for burial have floundered. Construction of a $17-billion factory has been halted because of design and safety issues. The plan is to bury the glass logs at a nuclear waste dump carved inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a project that has been on the drawing board for three decades but has run into resistance from Nevada lawmakers. The U.S. president has proposed $120 million to restart the licensing process for the needed action at the dump. Let’s hope the Trump takes care of the dump!