Columbia River site, a part of nuclear power's past, may be called on again

Along the grass-and-sage covered banks of the Columbia River sit a series of monuments to the Atomic Age. A scattering of giant concrete blocks and slender smoke-stacks are the old reactors built in World War II to produce plutonium for the first atomic bombs. Downstream, the domes and outbuildings of the troubled Washington Public Power Supply System's (WPPSS) nuclear power plants are clustered.

Welcome to Hanford, a 235-square-mile federal reservation in eastern Washington. It was created secretly in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project and played a key role in the early history of nuclear power.

And it may have an equally important place in nuclear power's future: This is one of the United States Department of Energy's three preferred locations for the nation's first burial site for the highly radioactive waste from commercial nuclear reactors.

South of Hanford is the Tri-Cities area. The towns of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco -- with their combined population of 140,000 -- nestle around the meandering course of the Columbia. As much as any place in the nation, this is pro-nuclear country. It has been ``built on energy, first nuclear and then, more recently, other types,'' says Neal J. Shulman, Richland's city manager.

The local slogan is ``Know Nukes'' rather than ``No Nukes.''

``A lot of public concern stems from emotionalism. It stems from the fact that a mystique surrounds nuclear energy,'' Mr. Shulman says. There is less concern in the Tri-Cities, he says, because the people are much more knowledgeable about radioactivity.

Yet he takes issue with how local attitudes have been caricatured in the state and national media. The area has been consistently portrayed as actively seeking the nation's first nuclear waste repository.

``Before we accept it, we want to make certain that the site is safe and environmentally sound. Once that is proven, then you will see us boosting it, and boosting it heavily,'' he says.

The area could use the modest economic boost a repository would bring. The economy went suddenly from boom to bust when WPPSS collapsed in 1982. Agriculture, the area's other economic mainstay, has also been doing poorly. Unemployment is running about 15 percent. But that is down from 17 percent, and local officials say things are looking up. ``People in the area are comfortable with the idea,'' says David W. Stevens, program director of Washington's Office of High-Level Nuclear Waste Management.

But the farther one travels from Tri-Cities, the more the ``nuclear repository'' becomes the ``radioactive waste dump.''

Hearings earlier this year in Spokane, the largest city in east Washington, were distinctly hostile. While shielded by the Cascade Mountains, concern in the distant state capital of Olympia is growing as more people discover the issue.

For several years the state Legislature has been unusually active in this area. It has had a special task force keep abreast of the situation. Recently, however, opinions appear to be splitting along partisan lines. The Republican legislators on the panel are from the Tri-Cities; the Democrats come from the greater Seattle area and are critical of the program.

Potential political problems for the program may also come from increasing state environmental activity, particularly by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.

``Up until six months or so ago, there were a number of small groups acting individually. But we have begun coordinating our activities,'' explains Sierra Club representative Annie Bringlow. This is also the only proposed site with active opposition from local Indian tribes.

The state has a strong motive for accepting a waste repository.

The Hanford Reservation already houses 48 million gallons of highly radioactive defense wastes. In the early 1970s mismanagement led to a number of major leaks. While much of this material has been moved into better designed tanks and monitoring has been stepped up, the state would like a permanent solution, says Mr. Stevens. So the state was perturbed that the DOE's draft environmental assessment (EA) ignored this issue.

Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, a Democrat, has not declared that he would exercise the veto extended to him by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) if this site is selected, as have his counterparts in other potential repository states. But the state has sued the DOE, challenging the legality of its site-selection method.

Governor Gardner has laid down some tough conditions that must be met to gain his backing: The operation most be absolutely safe; the site must be the best place for the repository; and the prospect must be acceptable to the people of the state.

Proving that the Hanford site is the best location will be difficult. Geologically, it has several strikes against it.

A 1983 National Academy of Sciences report found that the basalt rock flows found where a Hanford repository would be located ``is physically much less favorable than some other repository rock types.'' Hanford's proponents have little defense against the criticism that the only reason the area is being considered is because it is on the federal reservation. Instead, they argue that what is important is whether it can pass the various technical requirements that have been developed to determine its adequacy.

Basalt is hardened volcanic lava. It is brittle and filled with cracks. Down at 3,000 feet where the repository would be located, the rock is saturated with water. With its location near the Columbia, one of largest US rivers, the major concern is that buried radioactive waste might ultimately leak and be spread widely.

Since 1976, when the DOE field office and its contractors began studying the area, however, they have been consistently optimistic (critics say overoptimistic) about the prospects.

Edward B. Ash, director of the Basalt Waste Isolation Project for DOE contractor Rockwell International, lists the site's major pros and cons.

Hanford's top advantages, he argues, are its geology and the chemistry of the water found there.

The geology is layered basalt. More than 50 layers of rock are laid down to depths in excess of 10,000 feet. These layers can act as barriers to keep the buried radioactive wastes out of the environment for thousands of years.

The chemistry of the water is noncorrosive. The basalt absorbs most of the oxygen from the water. This means that the steel canisters that would hold the radioactive waste should last for thousands of years.

But Hanford's also has major disadvantages, according to Mr. Ash.

The deep rock formations are under considerable stress from the geologic forces that built the nearby mountains. While this tends to hold cracks tightly closed, it makes it more difficult and costly to design and excavate tunnels.

In addition, the repository would be about 30 percent more expensive to build than the other sites.

Unfortunately, the credibility of the Richland DOE and its contractors is under a cloud. In 1982 they issued a report that they now admit was far more positive than the data they had warranted.

David Squires, the DOE program analyst, recalls, ``Everything looked so good, but we should have recognized it was based on limited data.'' At the time, the various DOE field offices were racing each other to gather enough information to justify siting a repository in their area.

Hanford took the lead in this race. But when DOE officials here issued their report, it was roundly criticized by the state and other federal agencies. Since then, Mr. Squires says, the department has addressed many of the earlier criticisms. Its approach is now neutral, he adds.

Mr. Stevens says he has seen an improvement. ``Essentially, DOE has been put on notice that their work will receive thorough scrutiny. As a result, they have done a lot better job on the EA.''

Other critics are less convinced.

Take the crucial matter of groundwater flow. The DOE says the deep waters are stagnant, barely flowing in the basalts. Thus, it estimates the natural flow time to the accessible environment at 81,000 years. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff analyzed the same data and came up with figures ranging from 13,000 to 81,000 years, depending on the assumptions used. And the Sierra Club's Bringlow claims that some well tests that showed greater groundwater movement were omitted.

Oddly enough, a crucial pump test that Rockwell's Ash terms ``a key, one which could put us out of business'' is only now being started. Its results will not be complete until after the three sites are chosen for the $500 million-plus site-characterization process. This involves tunneling and mining the rock to further test its suitability and is the next step in the process leading to the first repository.

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