Cost of Nuclear Waste Cleanup in the Billions Westinghouse Approaches Disposal Project as If It Were an Environmental Lab for the World

Article excerpt

OUT where the Columbia River flows through the rolling farmland of southern Washington State, a new war involving weapons of mass destruction is being plotted. It will cost tens of billions of dollars before it is over, and in the end it still may take many generations to know the full outcome.

There is both irony and logic in the fact that this war will be fought where the fearsome weapon that ended World War II got its explosive power and where the ensuing 40 years of cold war were armed as well.

This time, however, the US Department of Energy's Hanford nuclear site is the scene of what is likely to be the most expensive and most extensive environmental cleanup in world history. Energy Secretary James Watkins calls it an "immense job," one that is expected to take 30 years and cost at least $57 billion.

"Radioactive waste was invented here," says Phil Hamrick, deputy manager of the Hanford site, which sprawls over 560 square miles and once had nine nuclear reactors in operation. "This place is the most contaminated of all the DOE sites. It's not a thing that we're proud of, but it's a fact."

The waste is a veritable witch's brew of radioactive and chemically hazardous materials scattered over at least 1,391 locations here. Some are no more serious than a dumped crankcase of used motor oil.

But they also include a large amount of highly radioactive solids and liquids as well as solvents, heavy metals, and acids. Among the chemicals used to process nuclear fuels were carbon tetrachloride, chromium, lead, mercury, and cyanide. Two hundred square miles

A recent DOE document points out that, "Some of the chemicals break down into harmless materials. Others remain dangerous forever." Officials are unsure of the total amount of the waste, but they estimate that at least 625,000 cubic meters of solid waste are radioactive and that about 200 square miles of ground water are contaminated.

Of all the high-level radioactive waste created by DOE's weapons facilities in the country, Hanford accounts for 63 percent by volume and 37 percent by radioactivity. The American nuclear-weapons complex is made up of 15 major sites in 13 states encompassing an area the size of Connecticut. 'Don't worry, win the war'

Officials here recall that the attitude during World War II was essentially "win the war and worry about the cleanup later."

"Hanford wasn't doing anything different from anybody else in those days with its garbage," says Mike Berriochoa, spokesman for the Westinghouse Hanford Company, the main government contractor here. "Our stuff was just nastier."

The problem is not only the nastiness of the stuff but where some of it is headed.

Hanford operations are located on the Columbia plateau, some within 10 miles of the river.

Even though the nuclear fuel processing facilities have been shut down for several years, some of the contaminants are moving though the soil into the water table and into the Columbia - just three miles upstream from where the city of Richland's public water supply is taken.

As the cold war proceeded and plutonium production rapidly expanded, Hanford managers did try to at least contain the radioactive waste, first in trenches and single-shell carbon steel tanks buried underground. …