'Blob' Creeps Toward Columbia River

Water Contaminated Near Hanford Nuclear Plant

Special to The Progressive Populist

Rivaling a badly scripted, poorly acted 1950s nuclear science-fiction B-movie, the unfolding disaster at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington State continues to mushroom.

In test drilling near the Reservation's waste storage tanks officials have recently discovered the most contaminated batch of technetium 99-tainted underground water ever found at the nuclear site, measuring in concentrations of 34,000 picocuries -- a measure of radiation -- per liter of water, 38 times the federal drinking standard of 900 picocuries per liter, the technetium concentration at which the risk of cancer increases.

The latest reading is from a location 220 feet deep and less than 20 feet from Tank SX-115, one of Hanford's 149 single-shell, leak-prone underground radioactive waste storage tanks near the center of the 560-square-mile reservation. Technetium, the Associated Press reports, is one of Hanford's fastest flowing subterranean contaminants, traveling at the speed of water.

The discovery of the concentration comes shortly after the news that for the past several years a large 20-year-old million-gallon tank, called SY-101, buried just under the surface at the reservation, 20 miles from Richland, a city of about 32,000 people, has been forming what has been described as a giant radioactive soufflé rising toward the top of the tank.

The tank could eventually overflow, according to officials of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Lockheed Martin Hanford Corp., the contractor in charge of the tank. Attempting to alleviate the possible overflow, workers last May sought to temporarily stop the growth by lancing the crust with high-pressure water jets, but the hole they made is now beginning to close again so workers are currently rushing to pump some of the waste into another tank.

In what officials now say was a mistaken strategy to reduce the waste's volume, organic chemicals were added years ago which were being bombarded by radiation fields, resulting in unwanted hydrogen. The hydrogen was then emitted in huge releases that official studies call burps, causing "waste-bergs," chunks of waste floating on the surface, to roll over.

Energy Department officials were afraid that at some point the tank, which belches thousands of cubic feet of gas at roughly 100-day intervals, would burp during a lightning storm and cause an explosion. "Under certain conditions, you could rupture the tank," Leo Duffy Jr., the Energy Department's chief environmental official during the Bush administration, told the New York Times' Matthew L. Wald. "You'd have a challenge on your hands in the state of Washington," he said.

Other officials interviewed by Wald only add to the grim assessment regarding the tank's future.

"I don't make any claims about this tank," said Donald Oakley, a retired environmental expert from Los Alamos National Laboratory, hired by the Energy Department as an outside consultant. "I'm not convinced anyone understands the chemistry and physics involved in this crust." At the Washington State Department of Ecology, Mike Wilson, manager of the nuclear waste program, said that before the crust was lanced, engineers were predicting the waste would reach the top of the tank this fall. "It was 'The Blob' kind of thing," he said.

In the midst of the concern about SY-101 the Department of Energy (DOE) has announced that it is considering the restarting of the nearby aging, inactive Fast Flux Test Facility reactor as part of its expansion of nuclear facilities to continue producing medical isotopes as well as fuel needed for future deep-space exploration.

No production of tritium nor any production of materials for nuclear weapons would take place, according to Colette Brown, a department program manager. If restarted, the amount of spent fuel waste that would be produced would equal 15 metric tons, Brown claims, which is considerably less than the 2,133 metric tons of similar waste now at Hanford. The DOE does not expect to make a decision until the end of next year.

The idea, however, has been met with immediate resistance. The Seattle City Council has unanimously passed a resolution opposing any restart. "Further contamination of the Columbia River risks the health of Seattle citizens and the economy of our region," said Seattle Councilman Nick Licata, the resolution's sponsor. The City of Portland also opposes restarting the reactor.

"It is a desperate attempt to come up with a mission for a facility ... that should be put to rest," Evan Kanter, incoming president of the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, recently told a Seattle public hearing.

The issue comes down to whether the government wants to clean up Hanford or add more hazardous waste to the site, which already holds the majority of the world's nuclear waste, declared Tom Carpenter, whose group issues the Government Accountability Reporter. "This is a fight for the soul of Hanford," he said. "The people of the Northwest learned in the last 15 years that it has a raging cancer ... that cancer is Hanford."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, a critic of restarting the reactor, said the Department of Energy, "has moved one step closer to declaring nuclear war against the citizens of the Pacific Northwest."

The DOE has estimated that to keep the facility idle, but in a restartable state, requires about 260 people and $40 million a year and that starting up the reactor would cost about $230 million over six years, $30 million more than shutting it down for good. Heart of the Northwest, a watchdog group, claims the DOE figures are a gross underestimate, noting that the government's own budget and work plan indicates restarting costs at $630 million.

It was two years ago when the DOE was 48 hours from draining liquid sodium from the core of the reactor -- which would have made it permanently inoperable -- that Washington's congressional delegation successfully lobbied the department to keep the facility on standby.

Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Washington, a staunch defender of the reactor, notes that "we have already invested millions in a premier facility that is capable of fulfilling a significant share of our future nuclear infrastructure needs. That investment must not be disregarded."

As reported in the June, 1998 Progressive Populist, Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the site of the nation's foremost nuclear-weapons plant with the largest concentration of radioactive waste in the world, 54 million gallons of radioactive waste, in liquid, sludge and dried-salt forms. The waste is stored in 177 earthquake-vulnerable underground tanks only a few hundred meters from the Columbia River.

Of those, 149 are made of a single shell of steel, and about 68 have already begun leaking, releasing about 900,000 gallons of such waste into the soil. The oldest tanks are more than 50 years old, and all the single-shell tanks are expected to leak eventually. The DOE, which manages the reservation, has said for decades that no waste from the tanks would reach the ground water in the next 10,000 years, but it is already in the ground and is moving inexorably toward the nearby Columbia.

As the Northwest Roman Catholic Bishops note in their "The Columbia River: Realities and Possibilities -- A Reflection in Preparation for a YR2000 Pastoral Letter," the fact remains "that Hanford, called by the U.S. Department of Energy 'the single largest environmental and health risk in the nation,' is regarded as the most polluted site in North America. The Columbia River, its salmon, fishers, wind surfers, picnickers, boaters, swimmers and water skiers have been endangered by Hanford wastes. Health impacts are gradually becoming known, and will continue to emerge for decades to come."

The waste in the SY-101 tank over the years has been unexpectedly whipped up by a pump that was ordered installed by the DOE in July 1993 that was supposed to dissipate pockets of hydrogen gas, breaking up the hydrogen into tiny bubbles that would fizz to the top, but in fact the waste has already smothered one tube for vapor sampling and is now threatening other instruments and could eventually overflow.

Likewise, the pump's success was only temporary, as the waste's crust began to toughen, making it harder for it to roll over from time to time. That made it increasingly difficult for the hydrogen to come to the surface. In December 1997, the crust, composed of radioactive and chemical components never before mixed, began to rise, even though virtually nothing was being added to the tank, It reached three feet, or 13 inches above the specifications for the tank's safe operation.

Prior to the crust resuming its growth, Hanford managers in 1996 announced that not only did they understand and had under control all the safety problems posed by one of the most troublesome buried nuclear waste tanks on the reservation, but that all the explosive materials inside the tank had decomposed to the point where they no longer posed a threat. Subsequently, the tank was taken off the infamous "watch list" of tanks that might cause catastrophic consequences on and off the reservation. Now, in addition, the crust also is growing downward, which could result in more hydrogen buildup and a crust that would be four times the size it was before the pump was installed.

In attempting to pump some of the tank's waste into another tank, Wald reports, some experts say that they are not sure the pumping will work and that they will trade a bad situation (one problem tank) for a worse one (two problem tanks). There is only one spare tank available, and the experts think the wastes may be incompatible with other wastes that are supposed to go into it -- organic liquids from older, leaking tanks that the department wants pumped dry, and wastes from a defunct plutonium-processing plant nearby.

For its part, the DOE in its most eloquent euphemistic bureaucratic prose reports that it has "incentivized the contractor to develop and execute an aggressive plan to mitigate the level rise in tank 241-SY-101" adding that it will spend more money to facilitate the plan.

"The whole situation at Hanford is a reaction mode rather than a planning mode," DOE's Duffy observes. "I gather they're baffled by what's going on."

Yet, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer rightly noted in a September 28, 1999 editorial: "If stubborn complacency could neutralize nuclear waste, Hanford would be cleaner than the Garden of Eden. Once again, Hanford officials have underestimated their cleanup problems and overestimated their ability to solve them. We can only hope they've not also underestimated the efficacy of their emergency procedures."

As concern was being expressed over the SY-101 tank signs of corrosion have been detected through ultrasonic testing on the inner wall of one of Hanford's 28 double-shell tanks holding radioactive wastes. Pits about 0.1 inch deep in the half-inch thick wall were discovered in a steel patch less than one yard square on the inner wall of Hanford's huge Tank AN-105, which holds 1.16 million gallons of radioactive wastes.

The pitting raises questions about how long the tanks will last. Built between 1968 and 1986, they were designed to last 50 years. Tank AN-105 was built in 1981. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation has 28 double-shell tanks. Workers are in the process of transferring wastes from the 149 older, leak-prone tanks to the newer double-shell tanks.

"It's something we're not really concerned about, but it's serious enough to make us follow up," observed Dana Bryson, the Department of Energy's director of its operations projects division at the tank farms.

Meanwhile, Karen Doren Steele reports in the Spokane Spokesman Review that Norm Buske, a scientist working for the Government Accountability Project, a non-profit group with offices in Washington, D.C., and Seattle that monitors Hanford cleanup efforts, has made a potentially ominous discovery: radioactive strontium 90 at 25 times safe levels in mulberry bushes whose roots reach into the river in the shadow of Hanford's old H Reactor. The radiation was found only 100 feet from some of the river's salmon beds.

Strontium 90, a byproduct of plutonium production, is a highly toxic element that attacks bone marrow and takes 38 years to decay to half its original strength.

Hanford contractors, Steele reports, have already detected a spike of hexavalent chromium, a powerful chemical and carcinogen, in the river at this very spot located below H Reactor's old retention basins, where radioactive cooling water and damaged fuel rods were dumped during the Cold War. The chromium is coming from a plume under Hanford in concentrations 25 times higher than what is known to harm juvenile salmon, according to a 1996 study for the DOE.

Buske's discovery last spring poses the alarming question: Has strontium 90 followed the same channel into the river as the chromium? Hanford officials say there's probably no problem. Others aren't so sure. "This is a big deal," said John Erickson, director of radiation protection for the Washington Department of Health. "It's a hot issue whenever salmon are involved."

Buske's findings are also "extremely unsettling and of serious concern," to Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the largest organization of commercial fishermen on the West Coast. Eighty percent of fall chinook in the Columbia River come from the Hanford Reach, Spain said.

Meanwhile, as U.S. officials keep seeking to assure the public of the safety of the handling of the nation's nuclear stockpile (despite Hanford and despite the fact that the government for the first time has acknowledged that nuclear weapons production during the cold war may have caused illnesses in thousands of workers, including cancers and lung diseases after exposure to beryllium, asbestos, mercury, uranium and other materials, all under safety standards set by the Energy Department and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission), the Washington State press was reporting on the latest nuclear accident in Japan.

Three workers were seriously injured by high levels of radiation at a Japanese fuel processing plant in the town of Tokaimura, 70 miles northeast of Tokyo, while hundreds of people were evacuated from the area before the nuclear chain reaction was brought under control.

U.S. industry and watchdog groups immediately began assuring the public that a similar accident was highly unlikely in the United States "because of technical improvements and safeguards imposed during the past 35 years." In addition, "several U.S. scientists criticized Japan's nuclear industry for sloppy procedures and a notoriously poor safety record."

When President Clinton, was asked by reporters about the Japan incident, he said he had directed that "our people learn everything we could about what happened there and analyze our systems here and make sure we've done everything we can to protect ourselves."

A.V. Krebs is a resident of the Pacific Northwest

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