Introduction to Hanford issues

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The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the largest nuclear waste dump in the Western Hemisphere and a major Northwest environmental issue. It is a serious long-term threat to the Columbia River, which Oregon depends on for power generation, farm irrigation, fishing, transport and recreation.

Hanford covers 560 square miles of desert in eastern Washington, along 51 miles of the Columbia River. It is 35 miles north of the Oregon border, and 215 miles upstream from Portland.

From 1943 to 1988 Hanford produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, using a line of nuclear reactors along the river. Cooling water from the river was piped through the reactors, then fed back into the river. Spent fuel rods from the reactors were dissolved in nitric acid to separate out the plutonium. Enormous amounts of highly radioactive and chemical waste were generated in the process. Since the production of plutonium ceased, Hanford’s only mission has been cleanup.

Hanford is owned by the federal government and managed by the US Dept. of Energy (DOE). Because Hanford is subject to both federal and Washington state environmental laws, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington state Dept. of Ecology have regulatory powers.

There is a legal contract governing Hanford cleanup, between DOE, EPA and the state of Washington, called the Tri-Party Agreement. The TPA contains legally enforceable “milestones,” deadlines for completing specific cleanup tasks. Originally signed in 1989, the TPA has often been renegotiated and amended. Many public meetings were held over the years to get public input into the TPA.

Waste tanks

About 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive and chemical waste are stored in 177 underground tanks the size of three-story buildings, buried in Hanford’s central area, about 12 miles from the river. Over the years 70 of the tanks have leaked about one million gallons of waste into the soil. At least some of the leaked tank waste has reached the groundwater, which eventually flows into the river. Estimated time for the tank waste to reach the river is anywhere from 7 to 20 years to a couple generations. How badly it damages the river depends on how much gets there and when.

Presently DOE does not have a plan for intercepting the tank waste before the waste reaches the river. To prevent more leaks, DOE has been pumping liquid waste out of the leaking single shell tanks into the newer, not yet leaking, double shell tanks. The pumping is going well and is on schedule.

The long-term plan is to “vitrify” the waste by combining it with molten glass to produce glass logs which will be stored in a dry underground vault in Hanford’s central area. The vitrification plant is now being built.

TPA deadlines are:

  • All single shell tanks to be pumped by Sept. 30, 2004
  • Vitrification plant operating by 2007
  • In full production by 2011
  • Ten percent of the tank waste vitrified by 2018
  • All 42 million gallons of low-activity tank wastes and 11 million gallons of high-level wastes vitrified by 2028

Our concerns about the project include:

  • DOE has never defined the endpoint of tank waste cleanup. Will the tanks be removed, the soil and water under them cleaned up?
  • DOE would like to reclassify some of the high-level tank waste as low-level waste so it can use a lower level of treatment. A federal judge has ruled that this is illegal, and Congress declined to change the law.
  • DOE is researching alternative technologies for immobilizing some of the low-activity tank waste, hoping to save time and money. A decision will be made in 2005. Any alternative technologies must protect the waste as well as glass would. Also, this approach would require reclassification of the tank waste by DOE, which has been ruled illegal.
  • DOE does not want to remove technetium from the waste before it is vitrified.
  • DOE is designing the vit plant while building it, an approach that has led to problems at other DOE sites.
  • According to the General Accounting Office, the plant to separate tank wastes before vitrification will be built before fully testing the needed technology.
  • DOE’s Office of River Protection may not have enough staff to oversee the contractor which is building the vit plant.
  • Some of DOE’s plans don’t agree with the TPA.
  • Plans are changing so rapidly that it is hard for the public to keep up.
  • Frequent deadline changes raise the question of whether DOE can stick to any schedule.

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K Basins

The two K Basins, only a quarter mile from the Columbia River, are huge indoor pools holding 2,300 tons of corroded, highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods under water. They have leaked in the past. An earthquake might crack them open, spilling radioactive water into the Columbia. Fuel exposed to the air could burn, scattering radioactive particles into the air. Because of the danger, the K Basins are considered one of Hanford’s most urgent problems.

Spent fuel is currently being removed from the Basins, dried out and put into canisters to be stored in an underground vault in Hanford’s central area. So far about three-fourths of the fuel has been moved.

TPA deadlines are:

  • Finish moving all fuel rods from both basins by July 31, 2004. DOE is ahead of schedule, and expects to finish by May 31.
  • Move radioactive sludge from both basins by Aug. 31, 2004. DOE was supposed to start sludge removal by Dec. 31, 2002, but has not started. They have asked for an extension.

Concerns about sludge removal include whether:

  • Enough resources have been committed.
  • The contractor, Fluor Hanford, is capable of doing the work or needs to be replaced.

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Solid waste

There are three kinds of radioactive solid waste buried at Hanford:

  • Transuranic
  • Low-level mixed waste produced by routine operations, environmental and facility cleanup
  • Transuranic mixed waste

Hanford has an estimated 75,000 barrels of such waste, most of it buried in trenches. There is no cleanup plan in place. DOE has been working on a Solid Waste EIS (environmental impact statement) which will govern all Hanford solid radioactive waste which is not high level tank waste or spent reactor fuel.

The main issue at present is transuranic waste – barrels filled with junk contaminated with highly radioactive particles with long half lives, meaning it takes thousands to millions of years for their radioactivity to decay to almost nothing. (TRU waste contains elements like plutonium which have atomic weights above that of uranium. )

DOE wants to send nearly 70,000 truckloads of transuranic and other solid wastes from sites in other states to Hanford. TRU wastes would be processed and stored at Hanford until the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico can take them.

DOE is attempting to reclassify some of the tank waste as TRU so that it can be shipped to WIPP.

Washington state tried to negotiate a deal allowing import of more waste in exchange for a legally enforceable TPA schedule to clean up the transuranic waste already at Hanford and send it to WIPP. When DOE wouldn’t agree to such a schedule, Washington and four environmental groups filed a lawsuit to stop DOE from importing any more waste. A judge issued an injunction against waste shipments.

Washington also used its power under the TPA to unilaterally set a new TPA deadline – have treatment and storage facilities in place for transuranic waste by June 2012.

DOE still has not released a final Solid Waste EIS but continues to move ahead with plans to import and bury waste at Hanford.

Unfortunately, as of January 2004, it appears that the Washington Dept. of Ecology is leaning towards allowing new waste at Hanford. Ecology has tentatively approved the creation of a new landfill at Hanford that would accommodate 900,000 cubic meters of waste, essentially doubling the amount of waste currently stored at Hanford.

Washington activists have collected enough petition signatures to put an initiative on the ballot next November which would:

  • Stop DOE from bringing nuclear waste from other states to Hanford.
  • Outlaw the disposal of solid wastes into unlined trenches at Hanford.

Our concerns include:

  • Burying more waste at Hanford increases the risk of adding to contamination of groundwater and the Columbia River.
  • The waste presently at Hanford should be cleaned up before we even think about bringing any more waste to Hanford.
  • Many of the wastes slated to be brought to Hanford need treatment facilities that do not yet exist on site.
  • The imported waste might stay at Hanford. We have no guarantee, so far, that it would ever be moved.
  • The trucks would pass through populated areas. There is a risk of an accident scattering their contents.
  • Terrorists could attack the shipments, turning them into “dirty bombs.”
  • One TPA deadline in 2012 may not be enough to keep the solid waste cleanup on track. The more legal deadlines, the more control Washington state and the public have.
  • DOE appears willing to write off groundwater contamination as irreversible so it can use the groundwater to absorb pollution.
  • Instead of basing the Solid Waste EIS on the meaningless concept of “acceptable risk,” the EIS should specify how solid waste would be processed and what form it should be put in to keep it out of the environment. The EIS does not do this.
  • We hope the Washington Dept. of Ecology doesn’t cave in on bringing new waste to Hanford. We support the initiative filed by Washington activists.

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What can you do?

The cleanup of Hanford is complex, enormously expensive and controversial. There is always someone in power who would like to simply build a fence around Hanford and walk away. Every new administration tries to find ways to cut corners and do it faster, cheaper.

Progress is being made, but it will only continue with constant public pressure. We are the watchdogs.

You can help by being part of the watchful public. Use this website and our email list to keep up on Hanford issues. Attend public meetings to let DOE know you’re watching. And when you hear anything you don’t like, use the list of links in the right column on our home page to let your legislators know how you feel about it.