Thursday, April 17, 2014

Earth ... pass it on: Cleaning-up Hanford

by Madeleine Brown, public outreach, Nuclear Waste Program

Have you heard of Hanford? When I travel east, many folks I meet have not. My quick elevator speech is this: Have you heard of the Manhattan Project? Well, Hanford was where the government made the plutonium for the bomb, in World War II and during the Cold War.

Making plutonium is an inefficient process, so there is a huge mess to clean up. It always takes longer to clean up a mess than to make it, and Hanford made a mess for more than 40 years. So of course it’s going take a long time to clean up.

My job is to help people understand and comment on the decisions about the cleanup.

Outreach is the most important part of my job. It’s through outreach that I can express to people that Hanford’s cleanup requires attention and participation in decisions for decades to come. The people who will do the work, and the people who will be affected by the work, may not yet be born.

Around the state, more and more people have heard about Hanford and know a little bit about it – mainly the last scary headline about leaking tanks or the delays in the cleanup schedule.

Cleanup is costly

The work is dangerous. There are invisible radioactive hazards. There are tons (literally) of chemically dangerous waste. There’s heavy equipment, and old and crumbling infrastructure. The amount of waste is vast.
  • More than 65 square miles of groundwater are contaminated above drinking water standards.
  • 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive and chemically hazardous waste is stored in 177 underground tanks
  • .
  • More than 40 miles of unlined trenches hold contaminated tools, garbage and equipment.
  • Unquantifiable numbers of buildings (they go up and come down nearly daily) and immeasurable amounts of contaminated soil.
  • Miles and miles of contaminated underground plumbing surround the tanks.
Planning to manage the risks, and all the steps required to accomplish the tasks really add up. The price tag for Hanford’s part of the Manhattan project was around half a billion dollars. Today, Hanford’s cleanup costs American taxpayers about $2 billion per year.

The difference? Cleaning up a mess is harder than making a mess — and today we’re dealing with the very messy work of previous generations. The waste management techniques used during the secret wartime era are not only illegal today, they are hard to even imagine.

It’s our backyard

Location, location, location. During World War II the Army chose Hanford because it was remote and sparsely populated. Today, Hanford’s economic impact results in a bustling community and a Metropolitan Statistical Area of more than 250,000 people.

When we finish a job, we can walk away, dusting off our hands and thinking of what to do next. But – as our parents always reminded us, we are not done until we clean up and put away the tools, too. Hanford’s cleanup will take decades.


Hanford has ironies. The first is that while Hanford’s wastes have profoundly contaminated several square miles of desert, they also have preserved hundreds more. Hanford’s former buffer areas are now the Hanford Reach National Monument, home to dozens of rare, threatened and endangered species, bountiful fish, and sensitive sage-steppe habitat.

Hanford not only has toxic cocktails of chemical and radioactive waste; it’s also home to more than 30 species new to science, discovered about 20 years ago when the government turned some scientists loose to assess Hanford’s natural resources.

Another irony: while the government chose Hanford for its plutonium mission, the work drew to the area thousands of people, who created the vibrant communities of the Tri-Cities.

While most places evolved, Hanford has dramatic history. Cataclysmic geologic events formed the landscape: first, basalt floods, then the Missoula floods at the end of the Ice Age. And a catastrophic geopolitical event, a world war, put the Hanford mission in this special landscape.

Bringing it back to Earth – Pass it on

Hanford’s dramatic history preserved a great deal of sensitive habitat that elsewhere has been converted to agriculture and communities. But it was at a huge environmental and financial cost. Our work in the Department of Ecology is to make sure the federal government cleans up Hanford according to our regulations that protect air, land, and water. We are charged with remediating a very large, unique, and special part of the earth. And my job is to help people help us with those cleanup decisions.

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