Dirty Little Nuclear Secrets: The Hanford Site

I’ve been learning more and more about my new home state of Washington, but something I just discovered the state doesn’t advertise much. That is: Washington was a nuclear weapons powerhouse. Washington has produced more plutonium than any other state at the Hanford Site in south central Washington. Hanford provided the nuclear payload for Fat Boy, the atomic bomb that leveled Nagasaki at the end of WWII and bathed the area in radioactive waste for generations. The United States produced more than 60,000 nuclear weapons during the cold war, the majority fueled with Hanford plutonium and uranium.

It feels an awful lot like karma that the Hanford Site, contaminator of Japan, is the most contaminated nuclear site in America and has spewed radiation by wind and water at varying levels of toxicity for seven decades. It doesn’t compare with the destruction of actually dropping nuclear bomb, but it’s nasty stuff nonetheless. The Columbia River was fairly radioactive at certain points in history and the problem could get worse if efforts to divert contaminated groundwater fail.

The Hanford Site in central Washington historically has been the single largest producer of weapons grade plutonium.

The Hanford Site in central Washington historically has been the single largest producer of plutonium.

The Hanford Site is adjacent to the Columbia River just north of the Tri-Cities, a metropolitan area of a quarter million consisting of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco at the confluence of the Columbia, Snake and Yakima rivers. The nuclear sector, largely via waste cleanup work now, continues to be a huge part of the economy in the Tri-Cities even though the site reportedly stopped producing plutonium in 1987. Cleaning up or at least “remediating” nuclear waste takes a very long time.

Now I’m going to quote from Wikipedia because I ain’t above that: “The Hanford site is one of the largest cleanup projects in the United States, costing over $1.4 million per day[12] to turn over 53 million US gallons (200 Ml) of nuclear waste into glass through a process called vitrification.[13] The process is proving to be one of the most dangerous in the world,[14] but is essential to staving off nuclear contamination of the nearby Columbia River.[15] Original estimates were $2.8 billion over five years to clean up the waste,[16] though estimates quickly grew in the early 1990s to $50 billion with a completion date of 30 years.[17] Costs are now projected at $112 billion with an estimated completion date of 2065.[18] Over 18 percent of all jobs in the Benton Franklin County area are nuclear-related, research-related, or engineering.[19]”

Seattle’s art scene is, for better or worse, dominated by Dale Chihuly and his blown glass sculpture installations. His museum sits at the base of the Space Needle sort of adorning it with elaborate glass lawn ornaments. Hanford could get some glass art of its own because, fittingly enough, scientists hope to contain Hanford’s sea of nuclear wastewater by forging it into glass tubes—a hideous, diabolical glass Medusa buried in a desert catacomb, the stuff of Salvador Dali fever dreams. Vitrification is apparently the best hope to keep the Columbia River from turning into a toxic radioactive stew.

Imagine the possibilities for a collaboration between Chihuly and Bechtel. The vitrified nuclear waste could be blown into whimsical shapes (maybe giant radiation resistant cockroaches?) and stored in an underground museum at Hanford where tourists and art enthusiasts could see a new frontier in installation art. Don't forget a hazmat suit and a Geiger counter.

Imagine the possibilities for a collaboration between Chihuly and cleanup contractor Bechtel! The dark vitrified nuclear waste glass could be blown into whimsical shapes (maybe giant radiation resistant cockroaches?) and stored in an underground museum at Hanford where tourists and art enthusiasts could see a new frontier in installation art. Don’t forget a hazmat suit and a Geiger counter. [Photo by Joshua Trujillo.]

How does glass contain the wastewater you ask? Well, Scientific American reports, “The glass is created by mixing sand with a few additives like boron; the waste is stirred in, and the whole mess is melted, then decanted into the steel canisters. After the glass logs solidify the waste is trapped and should be isolated from the environment for long enough for most of the radioactivity to decay to safe levels.” San Francisco based construction and engineering firm Bechtel has won the bid to perform this dark decanting sorcery and quickly set about bungling it and blowing past cost estimates by a factor of about 30 like any self respecting mega-contractor with a juicy government contract would do.

The Hanford Site gives tours of their facilities—apparently 60 per year—so strictly speaking they aren’t hiding their past. But Hanford isn’t a part of most schools’ social studies curriculum. Few learn about the nuclear industrial complex and the huge amount of radioactive waste associated with it. Generally, US history focuses on the scientific genius of the Manhattan Project in harnessing the atom and the need to drop nukes on Japan to break the will of the fanatical Japanese and save lives overall, thus rationalizing our unleashing the nuclear era and assuaging our guilt.

The costs both in money and in environmental degradation are decidedly less emphasized. But that is the reality people threatened by contamination from Hanford live with everyday. The astronomical cost of building the world’s largest nuclear arsenal (by far) is now paired with the huge cost of cleaning up the mess left behind. So I guess this turned into a diatribe against nuclear proliferation. So be it.

The United States still maintains a nuclear arsenal of 5.113 warheads (enough to destroy the world and to sink the world into nuclear winter many, many times over.)  So, next time a politician tells you the deterrent force of the US military isn’t enough and we need to boost our nuclear arsenal, tell them to shove it.

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