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
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. …