Tour finds plenty of gray area at Hanford site

The site's history and future present multiple contradictions for visitors to untangle.

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HANFORD -- The Department of Energy's public exhibition of Hanford provides a whirlwind tour of the site's history and cleanup efforts, placing the current effort of remediating radioactive and chemical waste into a complicated historical context that eludes easy answers about the legacy of a site that helped destroy two Japanese cities and now poses an ecological threat to American water and soil.

After following a sign labeled "Manhattan Project," into a conference room humming with World War II-era jazz music and grainy photographs of working and dancing Hanford employees, visitors find themselves confronted with the human side to the Hanford story -- one that challenges the abstracted images that portray Hanford as a desolate toxic waste dump and source of nuclear proliferation. While these images may not be inaccurate, they are perhaps incomplete, since Hanford was also a force of tremendous life, creativity and prosperity for both its employees and the Tri-Cities area. From the first few moments of the tour, it becomes clear that there are no easy answers about a site that epitomizes both our awesome power of creation and our horrific penchant for destruction.

Fellow visitors included retired Hanford employees, locals whose personal histories had been touched by the plant, and outsiders whose curiosity brought them anywhere from Seattle to China. They were the ones lucky enough to sign up for some of the 2,544 tour slots offered by the Department of Energy this year -- every slot filled up within 12 hours after signups were opened to the public.

The derelict engineering marvels, cocooned reactors and current waste-mitigation efforts, confronted tour-goers with the unavoidable political, ethical and philosophical dilemmas surrounding the site. Still, many attempted to iron out the complicated, paradoxical history of the site into a seamless, meaningful narrative.

For some former plant workers and others, the site seemed to be the result of historical necessity, and a testament to American ingenuity and patriotism in the face of extraordinary historical circumstance. But for those who grew up near Hanford, the site seemed to conjure spirits of friends who perished from cancer that they associated with Hanford, and the specter of mutually-assured Cold War destruction and impending ecological disaster.

A closer look at Hanford's history, however, seems to resist both ends of the Hanford dichotomy.

In the B Reactor, which was the first large-scale plutonium enriching facility, the ingenuity of plant designers and operators, who completed an unprecedented engineering feat in 13 months, is staggering. Not only did plant designers and workers build something that had only been modeled months before at the University of Chicago by Enrico Fermi, workers and laborers did so without the luxuries of modern technology.

Beginning in 1943 builders drafted plans on paper (or even in their heads), invented and machined new tools on site, and used slide rules rather than calculators to make the complex mathematical calculations needed.

"This was before the days of Wal-Mart," joked a tour guide. In the main control room, pressure gauges stud an entire wall, where a team of technicians once meticulously monitored each individual cooling-tank to ensure the reactor did not overheat.

While exiting the B Reactor, tour guides handed out copies of a letter written by Albert Einstein in 1940 to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The letter brings the difficult choices associated with building Hanford and creating a nuclear bomb into sharp relief. In the letter, Einstein discusses the potential for bombs that utilize enriched Uranium to create massive destruction, and expresses an earnest fear that Nazi Germany may have already developed such weapons.

While the Hanford tour highlights the perilous historical circumstances that forced quick decision-making and rapid innovations, the tour also provided glimpses of the consequences of these choices. The injustice done to those who lived in Hanford, who were forced off their lands with little compensation, the current ecological threats posed by the site and images of the rubble-strewn remnants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not neglected.

Although the impressive standing edifices of Hanford testify to the genius and creativity of the designers and laborers, like everything about Hanford, the work of plant designers and operators was not without paradox.

According to DOE guide Robert Roxburgh, "waste was an afterthought" for technicians at Hanford, who buried 149 holding tanks, which were designed to last only 20 years, 10 feet beneath the ground, without designing a method of retrieving the waste.

Additionally, workers at Hanford buried waste haphazardly in unrecorded locations throughout the 560-square-mile sprawl of the site.

As the tour transitioned from past to present, Hanford media specialist Richard Buel provided an analogy intended to illustrate the difficulty of ferreting out and remediating the still undiscovered toxic and radioactive sites.

"I have a $100 bill in my back pocket for anybody who can tell me exactly what they threw away yesterday... It isn't easy is it? They're digging up materials from the 1940's . . . and the records about what those materials are may or may not be very complete," Buel said.

The task of correcting the haste of original plant designers has fallen to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington state Department of Ecology, with the former directing the cleanup process and the latter two providing regulation under the Tri-Party agreement.

According to DOE staff at the site, the cleanup process has been given life by President Obama's Economic Recovery Act, which in 2009 gave the DOE $1.6 billion and gave an additional $326 million to the DOE Office of River Protection -- the agency responsible for retrieving, treating and eventually disposing of the 53 million gallons of radioactive/chemical waste in Hanford's 177 storage tanks.

Further complicating the mixed legacy of Hanford is the fact that while the site poses a major ecological threat to the surrounding area, the existence of such a threat also sustains the Tri-Cities economy. According to the DOE website, stimulus money has created an additional 3,000 jobs at Hanford, and now employs more than 11,000 people in the Tri-Cities area. That means that cleanup operations at Hanford now generate 31 percent of payroll in the Tri-Cities area, according to TRIDEC.

Stimulus money has also funded the development of more advanced means of clearing out the radioactive sludge clinging to the bottom of 143 of the defunct, single-shell tanks, 67 of which have leaked as much as 1 million gallons of waste to the surrounding soil -- leakage that many groups and organizations fear could contaminate the Columbia in less than a decade.

According to Roxburgh, the stimulus money has allowed the DOE contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, to develop a mobile arm retrieval system intended to, "push the sludge to the center of the tank where it can be pumped."

"These were things we planned to do but the stimulus money helped accelerate the process," commented Roxburgh, standing before a massive "mock up" waste tank where various technologies to remove the sludge have been tested for the past decade.

Despite years of testing various methods and technologies to remove waste remnants, only seven of the 149 remaining single-shell tanks have been completely emptied, but Roxburgh is hopeful that new technology, namely the mobile retrieval arm, will help empty more of the tanks in less time. However, as of early last month, staff reported that the arm system was out of commission while undergoing repairs.

At one stop of the tour Mark McKenna, an employee of the DOE and expert on solid waste management for Hanford, described the acceleration of storing Hanford's less toxic, "low-level" solid waste as unprecedented. "A year and a half ago, storing 200 (multi-ton) tanks in a day was our goal, and over the past three weeks we've consistently stored close to 600 a day." McKenna said.

According to McKenna, part of the nearly $2 billion of aid infused by the stimulus plan has allowed the contractor, Washington Closure Hanford, to create the liner for two "Super Cell" trenches at the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, and completely extract one of them, improvements that have facilitated the acceleration of storage described by Mckenna.

Despite the recent acceleration of cleanup, according Buel said the long-term future for Hanford's liquid waste remains uncertain. The current plan is to mix liquid waste with molten glass through an expensive, and energy intensive process known as vitrification that produces a solid and less ecologically hazardous form of waste.

However, according to Buel, storage for the vitrified, glass-like cylinders that the DOE plans to begin producing by 2018 remains an open question.

"The DOE has received a directive that Yucca Mountain is not an option (for storing vitrified waste)" Buel said last month, referencing Obama's decision to remove Yucca Mountain repository for consideration as a permanent repository for Hanford's waste.

Buel recently updated his statements, however, saying the DOE's motion to remove Yucca Mountain from consideration was recently denied by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Regardless of the future storage location, Buel says that the construction of the $12.2 billion vitrification plant, which is planned to operate from 2018-2052, will "move ahead with the assumption that there will be some repository."

Omar Ihmoda can be reached at omarihmoda@wwub.com.


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