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.
But the tanks began to leak (66 of 149 such tanks have leaked 750,000 gallons of radioactive wastes into surrounding soil), so double-shelled tanks were built. That was 22 years ago, two years more than the design life of the newer tanks. In some areas, subsurface waste has moved 10 miles or more through the ground, making it even harder to find and recover.
Under a 1989 "tri-party agreement" between DOE, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington State Department of Ecology, the federal government pledges to clean up and restore the Hanford site over the next 30 years. This includes many "milestones" for the hundreds of plants, laboratories, waste streams, and other facilities here.
Among the planned cleanup methods: Low-level liquid waste will be mixed with cement, flyash, and clay (a mixture called "grout") to be stored underground in forty-four 1.4-million gallon vaults designed to last 10,000 years; high-level radioactive waste will be transformed into glass-like logs through a process called "vitrification," then stored in stainless-steel canisters until buried at a permanent disposal site; low-level contaminated soil will similarly be turned into a basalt-like substance by "in
situ vitrification," having been jolted by high-power graphite rods stuck into the earth; contaminated buildings and other structures will be disassembled and decontaminated.
There are technical problems with many aspects of the cleanup, however.
The congressional Office of Technology Assessment notes, for example, that the vitrification process "has yet to operate on a large scale in the United States, and long-term performance of the vitrified waste form in various settings is difficult to predict and hard to verify."
The Bush administration budget for DOE cleanup has grown considerably in recent years, to a total of $5.3 billion for fiscal year 1993 ($1.7 billion of that for Hanford). And critics of the way nuclear weapons waste has been dealt with over the years are generally happy with Energy Secretary Watkins.
"Clearly he is the most open and upfront secretary of Energy there's ever been," says James Thomas, research director of the Hanford Education Action League, a Spokane-based group that's forced DOE to release records and continues to criticize delays in the cleanup process.
But another Hanford watchdog group (Heart of America Northwest, based in Seattle) this week is suing DOE and Westinghouse for violating the federal Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the "Superfund" law. Massive challenge
Meanwhile, the Hanford Downwinders Coalition, representing those who may have been harmed by large radioactive releases years ago, is suing Hanford contractors.
Hanford officials like to put a positive spin on what everyone acknowledges is a massive challenge left over from the cold war. They say that the environmental cleanup here will be a testing ground for new waste-management techniques that could benefit the whole world, just as the US space program has been for new spinoff technologies in computer and medical science.
"The whole thing is kind of an environmental lab," says Phil Hamrick, Hanford's deputy manager. "One has to think big. One really has to think big."