Hanford Nuclear Production Site: DOE Clean Up Tour

Hanford – for those who know what and where that is – was shrouded in secrecy for decades. It is the site near the city of Richland in Washington state, that met nearly every criteria the United States government had in 1943 for establishing a nuclear production complex as part of the Manhattan Project, first to create plutonium from uranium that went into the atomic bomb Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and after that fueling the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. Major features were that it was next to the Columbia River for cooling the reactors, that the Grand Coulee Dam upstream could power the facilities, and that at the time, there was scant population that would be affected. But, it was enough population, about 1,200 mostly white homesteaders, that were forcibly kicked off their land with a small check the government gave for the land – but not for the crops and fruit trees the small population had cultivated, in the midst of the war rationings. The inhabitants of the Hanford and White Bluff townships had between two weeks and 30 days to leave. They were not to tell troops in their family there was no home to come home to because the government kicked them off the land, nor that the government brought in low risk inmates to harvest the fruit of their hard labor in the fields and that the food was used to feed the new workers of the Hanford site; knowing these things might affect the morale of the troops. The Native Americans were also cut off from having access to the location within the Hanford site that was sacred to them, and their access to the river for their traditional fishing dwindled, and was shortly cut off. Now all that is left of the townships are trees, indicating humans had established themselves here once, and three buildings widely scattered.

I went on two of the three free public tours that are now given on and of the Hanford Site. I applaud that these tours acknowledge the government’s treatment of those on the land before it was turned to a nuclear production complex; it’s part of the story. There is also a quiet justification in statements that are made, which I have noticed in other, especially Western American, narratives of massive projects significantly changing the land or way of life for those who happen to call those places home first. In this instance, in regards to Hanford, there is a sweeping statement as if all were in patriotic agreement this was the course that had to be taken. Perhaps it was; Japan surrendered and the war was over just days after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. But people suffered in both countries, and all those pieces are the tension we’ve still got to sit with.

The first tour I went on is the Department of Energy (DOE) Hanford clean up tour, a nearly 100 mile drive throughout the Hanford site, stopping at different locations to see the facilities and hear about the one largest environmental clean ups in the world. The tour booklet shows the map of the route, as well as the locations highlighted on the tour. Most of the time is spent on the bus, and most of the time outside of the bus is spent in confined areas. There is less and less to see over time, as more and more of the buildings are demolished as part of the contaminated waste clean up. There are strict rules on this tour: participants must be American citizens; no cameras are allowed, no recording devices. So I took pen and paper: 14 pages of written notes, 10 pages drawing the scenes I would have captured had I been allowed a camera. Our guide was a physicist who had worked for 35 years at Hanford in a variety of diverse projects, so he had a very good overview and insight to the inner workings and history of the place.

What I was most impressed with, really in awe about, is the interdisciplinary nature of the work, then and now, to accomplish audacious goals, that think incredibly downstream and all of the scenarios that can play out – and that the work doesn’t become stagnant, but actually makes progress. The nuclear bit went from literally theory to bombs in two years. The reactors were built in 13 months – and worked. The second tour I went on was of the B Reactor, and I will describe the enormous undertaking and precision of that construction in another write up. Currently, with the contaminated waste clean up, these scientists and engineers are thinking years down the line – not like hundreds of years, but 70,000 years because that is how long it will take for the radioactive waste to thoroughly decay and lose its hazard. The other thing I was impressed with was that there’s nothing really that special seeming about the landscape, especially as buildings are torn down. The undulating flatness and remoteness with occasional hills, grassy, shrubby land – that’s still and mostly the same view you see long and far into the horizon. Unremarkable. Yet underneath some of this land is highly contaminated and radioactive material. Under, for the very reason that the earth acts as a shielding, a protection, from the radiation. But under, meaning there are also leaks being addressed and mitigated, that have contaminated the groundwater reservoir just below the site – separate from the city’s groundwater – but contaminants that are still creeping towards the Columbia River. Maps show the enormous progress made in removing contaminants from the groundwater, reducing its creep towards the Columbia. During the production life of the site, some contaminants would be knowingly released into the air and groundwater, and local or downstream inhabitants were not necessarily notified. Studies were done on the working adults at Hanford, and on their children; we were told nothing extraordinary came up. Yet something I read stated that residues were found as far as the Washington and Oregon coastlines, carried by the Columbia River to the ocean.

Here are rough sketches of some of the buildings on the tour. Histories are taken of buildings to understand how and where they are contaminated, whether contamination is in the soil. Sometimes buildings have to be upgraded in order to be safe enough to demolish. Such analysis and work is currently being done on 324 Building. The most contaminated structures such as the D Reactor are not demolished but are cocooned for 70 years as an interim step, essentially sealed as well as possible to prevent rain and such from dispersing the contaminants. What happens in 70 years? It’s still not decided, and the public can comment on the different plans and ideas. Not all buildings will be destroyed, and so one idea is to possibly move the structures to sit as a sort of graveyard on the central plateau on the Hanford site. Other waste currently stored on the Hanford site includes the U.S. Navy’s defueled reactor cores from submarines and nuclear powered ships in a very wide trench.

But other structures are underground, such as the tank farms, now a combination of liquid, sludge, and solid contaminated waste. 56 million gallons of radioactive waste, in 177 underground tanks, 149 of which are single-shell (1943-1964) and 28 double-shell (1968-1986). The original single-shell tanks were built to last 25 years, and the figure given is that 1 million gallons have leaked into the soil since 1950. This drawing is a little more simplistic, but shows how you can come across a flat area, know something’s underground and happening – and here’s where the iceberg analogy would be appropriate – because beneath the surface there are dozens of 55,000 to 1 million gallon capacity tanks. And the only access into them are 12-inch diameter “risers”, or portals, indicated in my drawing by the black rings. What my drawing is missing, at least for some of the tank farms, is the above ground piping, as they transfer waste from the lower integrity tanks to newer high integrity tanks as “interim stabilization” of the contaminated material until the Waste Treatment Plant’s construction is completed and transformation of the material can commence. And yes, apparently it’s been interesting and innovation pushing technologically to build contraptions that can close up on themselves to fit through the 12-inch diameter risers, open up to do their job in the tank, and not corrode or deteriorate in the toxic environment of the material in the tanks.

The Waste Treatment Plant will transform the contaminated liquid, sludge, etc. waste into glass. Yes, glass. In a process called vitrification, the waste will be mixed with a silica compound like sand, a glass former. It will then be melted, and poured into steel containers, both to give form to the waste, and as another layer of protection. A photo we were shown of the glass material looks like a giant block of obsidian; I suspect the color and such would change based on the mix of materials in the waste. Because each tank’s waste is mixed itself, the formula will have to be adjusted essentially by the profile of each tank’s materials. The low activity waste’s coffin/container is the soda can looking container, which I think is about 10-12 feet tall, maybe. The high activity waste storage container looks more of a narrow tube. The low activity waste, which our tour guide did a quick calculation of, would probably decay to the end of its radioactive life in about 140-240 years. He said someone related to the project pointed out that there are buildings in Europe that are older than 240 years, so it is possible for humans to construct buildings that would last the life of the decay process that could store this low activity radioactive glass. For the high activity waste, however, he calculated full decay could take up to 70,000 years.  The idea for storing those is a seismically stable geological repository, originally slated for Yucca Mountain, Nevada (as Washington state will not allow permanent storage of the high activity material in the state); however, the Obama administration reversed that decision and as of yet there is no alternative agreed upon location.

By having the radioactive material in glass form, microencapsulation, water won’t be a threat because the particles are sealed in glass, it can’t leach; if the glass is broken, the material still can’t be removed – which is why glass form was chosen as the final waste treatment.

If I wrote down my numbers correctly, about 80 percent of the Hanford material is low activity waste (anticipating needing 100,000 containers), and 20 percent is high activity waste (anticipating needing 1000 containers). The goal is for the Waste Treatment Plant to start processing low activity waste starting by 2025, and high activity waste starting 2030. However, to my understanding that is the preliminary steps, because it likely will not be until 2060 that the vitrification process begins of transforming the material into glass.

That was the Hanford DOE clean up tour, which has limited spots and dates, so is difficult to get a seat on.

The other tour I went on runs nearly daily, the B Reactor Tour, hosted by the National Park Service (NPS).  While the DOE tour is more restrictive, the B Reactor tour is open to anyone, cameras and recording devices allowed. The tour is confined to essentially the inside sections of the reactor that have been opened up to the public, but one can roam freely through the open corridors at one’s own pace, and there are a few presentations by docents. For someone who likes seeing the technology and engineering, this access was an especial treat. My write-up and photographs from the B Reactor are at this link.