Hanford Tests the Limits of Technology To Put Nuclear Genie Into Glass Bottles


Spread across the windy bluffs above the Columbia River in southeastern Washington State, the Hanford nuclear site is an ominous reminder that not everything about the cold war is history.

Here, Enrico Fermi worked on the reactor that produced atomic- weapons material used at Nagasaki to end World War II. For decades after that, nine reactors and other facilities manufactured the plutonium that fueled the bombs and rockets making "mutually assured destruction" a stark geopolitical reality.

Waging or preventing war was the goal, and environmental niceties were largely ignored.

Since then, politicians and scientists - not to mention nearby communities - have fretted about the deadly mess that resulted from making the United States the No. 1 superpower - and the billions of dollars it will cost to clean it up.

But things are changing, and the history of Hanford seems likely to take a new turn this year. The way of managing the place is undergoing significant change, and the results of actual cleanup are becoming evident as well.

"This is the year when we show people we're really going to dig dirt and it's going to fly," says Richard Holten, the US Department of Energy's director of restoration efforts here.

Farmers, environmentalists, Indian tribes, and other interests - whose main message to politicians and bureaucrats for years had been "get on with it!" - are talking about what to do with the 560-square-mile site once the job is done.

There are several underlying philosophies to what began under Energy Secretary James Watkins during the Bush administration, continued under current Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, and accelerated with a more budget-conscious Congress elected two years ago.

One is that results on the ground should take precedence over bureaucratic paper-shuffling, and that this should include a move toward privatization in which contractors are paid only for what they accomplish.

The other is that Hanford should not continue to be a place where "the best is the enemy of the good," to use one definition of gridlock. In other words, doing something about lessening the danger from massive amounts of radioactive and chemical waste is better than doing nothing while experts try to figure out the ideal solution.

The size and scope of the challenge is enormous:

*1,500 identified waste sites.

*More than 250 buildings that need to be decommissioned, including the nine reactors and five large processing facilities.

*2,300 tons of deteriorating nuclear fuel - 80 percent of the Energy Department's total.

*177 underground tanks containing more than 57 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste. (67 of the tanks, some of which are 75 feet high, are confirmed or suspected "leakers.")

*More than 400 billion gallons of liquid waste dumped into the ground.

*85 square miles of contaminated groundwater - more than a trillion gallons.

*30 million cubic yards of contaminated soil.

The list of "principal contaminants of concern," as they're called, is just as long and sobering: strontium, cesium, uranium, plutonium, tritium, carbon tetrachloride, mercury, lead, and cyanide - to name just a few ingredients in the toxic recipe. There are also large amounts of asbestos that need to be removed and rendered harmless in a giant furnace.

Visitors here are given a safety lecture and issued a "dosimeter" to measure cumulative exposure to radioactivity. Much of the area is now open to accompanied tours - carefully watched in some places by beefy men in black jumpsuits armed with automatic weapons. But some areas remain off-limits.

"Trust us, it's crappy in there," says one official on a drive by the now-defunct K-East reactor. "I'm always of the belief that if you don't have to take a dose, don't."

Most of the reactors were built right along the Columbia River. Water was pumped in to cool the reactors, then pumped back into the river. Radioactive and chemical wastes - everything from reactor parts to solvents to protective gloves - were bundled up and buried or simply dumped. Some contaminated liquids were poured onto the ground (as a "filter") as recently as 1993.

Basins to hold spent nuclear fuel under water have been in use for twice their design life, and one leaked 94,000 gallons in 1993. The highly radioactive waste from uranium reprocessing was stored in single-walled underground tanks (the ones that eventually began leaking).

"The massive amounts of radioactive materials at Hanford will be hazardous for thousands of years," states a Department of Energy document. "The potential health effects of prolonged exposure to materials that are both radioactive and chemically toxic are not fully understood. In some cases, the technology does not exist to resolve the environmental problem."

Lack of understanding and technology should not stymie action, however, officials say.

"Trying to determine the end state for cleanup is one thing, but we have urgent risks we need to deal with," says Mike Berriochoa, spokesman for Westinghouse Hanford Company, the main operator here.

The waste in most of the single-shell tanks has been pumped into double-shell vessels - safer, but temporary nevertheless. The Energy Department recently approved initial construction of a new facility to house the spent fuel in dry canisters away from the Columbia.

"One of the big community values here is protecting the river," says Elizabeth Sellers, director of the US Energy Department's spent nuclear fuels division.

The idea with everything here, officials say, is to create a situation that is "controlled, clean, and stable."

But as John Wagoner, the senior Energy Department official here, also says, "You haven't solved the problem until you get the stuff to its final resting place."

In some cases, this may mean transporting stabilized radioactive waste to the federal government's planned permanent repository in New Mexico.

The plan now is to turn the high-level waste being stored in tanks into glass-like logs through a high-heat process called "vitrification." These would then be placed in stainless-steel canisters for permanent burial. (The half-life for most of the radioactive material here is 30 years, which means it is all but benign in about 300 years.)

But those plans may change. A panel of National Research Council scientists recently questioned the idea of vitrification, which has yet to be demonstrated in a large-scale application. It may make more sense, these scientists suggested, to build barriers around the double-shelled tanks - none of which has leaked so far - and leave the waste where it is.

In some cases, says the DOE's Mr. Wagoner, it may be more effective to completely seal up a reactor "so nobody will have to go in for 50 years." This would cost $12 million instead of $250 million for deconstruction while sharply reducing the annual cost for upkeep (or "the mortgage," as officials call yearly operating budgets).

"Those kinds of decisions can save billions of dollars and knock years off the schedules we've talked about," Wagoner says.

Some buildings here are being knocked down, and the scrap cleaned up for disposal or recycling. "They're deteriorating, so we need to get them down," says Jeff Bruggeman, DOE project engineer in charge of building decontamination and decommissioning. "We're changing the skyline here."

One of the most obvious signs of cleanup at Hanford is the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, being built by Bechtel Hanford Inc., another prime contractor.

ERDF is a series of huge trenches - 750 feet wide by 1,000 feet long by 80 feet deep - lined with clay and plastic sheeting. These will hold contaminated soil from areas near the Columbia River. Once full, the holes will be capped and replanted with natural vegetation. Two of these 500,000-cubic yard "cells" are nearly completed and are scheduled to start being filled in July.

"We'll dig two more and then more until we're finished or the government runs out of money, whichever comes first," jokes Owen Robertson, DOE's project manager for ERDF.

Money is a major concern - getting enough from Congress to do the job while demonstrating efficiency.

Two years ago, 65 percent of the total budget here was spent on management and support services with the balance of 35 percent directly applied to field work (deactivation, the ERDF facility, and other environmental remediation). In 1996, those figures will be more than reversed: 72 percent of the budget will be spent in the field and 28 percent on management and support.

"And that's not good enough," says Joseph Nemec, president of Bechtel Hanford Inc. "Our goal is 90 percent."

The total work force here has dropped from about 19,000 to just more than 14,000 in the past two years, with cutbacks coming in the form of voluntary (and some involuntary) layoffs as well as retirements. Last fiscal year, 74 percent of all environmental restoration spending was subcontracted out.

"We're trying to run this operation like a business," says Mr. Nemec. "Our fee is determined solely on performance."

That's the kind of thing penny-pinching lawmakers back in Washington want to hear.

In congressional testimony and other public comments, officials here indicate a "can-do" spirit on belt-tightening. But they also worry that deep cuts could put them behind schedule.

"It may be in the interests of a congressman from Oklahoma to reduce the federal budget, but that congressman doesn't live out along the Columbia River," says one.

The plan to balance the federal budget in seven years would mean annual spending here of about $1.2 billion.

"That's a very big, very healthy budget," says Wagoner. "But it's smaller than the $1.8 billion to $2 billion it would have been, so we've had to figure out how to do this job differently."

One difference is that all major stakeholders - local officials, Indian tribes, state regulators, environmentalists, business interests - have been consulted on cleanup goals and budgetary realities.

To some extent, this was true even before the current budget crunch. A 1989 "Tri-Party Agreement" involving the US Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington State Department of Ecology outlines a plan with more than 650 specific milestones for total cleanup by 2028.

The specific steps are designed to bring Hanford into compliance with two major federal laws governing hazardous waste: the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Comprehensive Environment Response, Compensation, and Liability ("Superfund") Act.

As the cleanup proceeds, plans are being made here for life after nuclear weapons. Later this summer, an environmental impact statement including a comprehensive land-use plan will be issued for public comment.

The area closest to the Tri-Cities (Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick) could become an industrial park. Some residential developers have their eye on the land along the river. Farmers would like access to land on the north side of the Columbia, which the federal government acquired as a buffer. A consortium of international companies has its eye on the Fast Flux Test Facility (a test reactor that could be reopened) to produce radio isotopes and tritium for commercial sale.

US Rep. Richard (Doc) Hastings (R) of Washington, who represents the area in Congress, has introduced a bill to help local counties control much of the property.

US Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington proposes designating the Hanford Reach (51 miles of the Columbia flowing through the nuclear site) as a Wild and Scenic River and National Wildlife Refuge.

Ironically, protection from dams and other commercial development kept this portion of the Columbia - flowing through one of the most toxic places on earth - free-flowing and full of Chinook salmon and other wildlife.

But all of that is years in the future. And it seems certain that the central portion of the site will remain a highly secure place to store toxic waste.

For as the Energy Department's Richard Holten says, "Some of this stuff will last for thousands of years."

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