Big decisions loom for the Hanford Site near Richland. Hanford has been described as the biggest cleanup project in the world. The lethal byproducts of decades of plutonium production are present in the soil, the buildings, and the debate over how to deal with some of the most dangerous waste on earth. The site spans more than 500 square miles in eastern Washington. The cleanup involves millions of gallons of radioactive waste and toxic chemicals on land bordered by the Columbia River.
Hanford workers produced the plutonium that was used in the Trinity test, the world’s first nuclear detonation. Hanford plutonium was also used for Fat Man, the bomb that did incomprehensible damage to Nagasaki, Japan. There were nine plutonium production reactors at Hanford. After World War Two, work continued at the site in the service of America’s nuclear arsenal through the cold war. Plutonium manufacturing at Hanford was halted in 1987 when the last reactor was shut down.
The United States Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington State Department of Ecology are involved in a multi-decade operation that includes demolishing radioactive buildings, removing radioactive soil, and intercepting underground plumes of radioactive material that threaten the groundwater and the river.
“The Columbia River is just right there. It goes through the site and everybody downstream could be impacted by a bad day out at Hanford,” said David Bowen, Nuclear Waste Program Manager for the Washington State Department of Ecology. “It’s a Washington state problem. It’s an Oregon problem. You know, it’s a national issue. It needs to be a priority.”
Workers are approaching a milestone for the cleanup operation by testing huge melters designed to transform radioactive sludge into glass for more stable long term storage. To bring the vitrification plant online, the melters are heated to 2100 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2022, efforts to fire up the melter were halted when an electrical system component overheated. Earlier this year, Hanford workers reached that milestone temperature for the second time.
There are more than 50 million gallons of nuclear waste at the site. The operation involves pumping the waste out of aging steel tanks, some of which have sprouted leaks in the past. The tank waste takes various forms and includes both liquid and salt residues.
The timeline for completing vitrification of tank waste has been pushed back from the original target and now extends decades into the future. There is also debate about whether to find an alternative to vitrification such as mixing waste into grout to speed up the process and lower costs. That prospect remains controversial. Some of the material at Hanford could remain dangerously radioactive long into the future.
As new problems have continued to crop up, the cost of cleaning up the site has ballooned over time with some estimates ranging from 300 to 600 billion dollars.
The non-profit organization Hanford Challenge is one of multiple non-governmental groups which have formed over the years, devoted to keeping an eye on operations at Hanford.
“This waste is incredibly dangerous in incredibly small amounts,” said Nikolas Peterson, Executive Director of Hanford Challenge. “We have to make sure that this waste is isolated away from the public and away from the environment, because once it reaches the environment, it’s going to be a much more complicated and a much more expensive cleanup and one that could harm future generations.”