Published on Sunday, March 12, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Radioactive Waste Seeps Toward The Greatest River Of The American West
by Kim Murphy

RICHLAND, Wash.--For five years during the 1960s, researchers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation took spent fuel from the plant's bomb-making reactors and conducted a series of radiochemistry experiments. Once the work was finished, the fuel--so radioactive it couldn't be handled except by remote control--was buried in three underground trenches.

And there it remained, largely forgotten. Until last year, when routine surveys found tritium--known to cause birth defects--at concentrations 90 times the federal drinking water standard in a nearby well. By last month, the level of tritium in the ground water had increased fourfold.

The well lies 3 1/2 miles from the Columbia River, the greatest river of the American West, the waterway that irrigates 1 million acres of prime farmland in two states and nurtures 80% of the fall chinook salmon harvested in Alaska and British Columbia.

Tests of other wells have shown that the potent tritium seep hasn't moved more than a quarter-mile from the burial site. Still, Hanford officials say that the contamination could reach the river in as little as three years.

What's more disturbing is what may follow. Tritium is one of the fastest-moving radionuclides and may merely be the scout. Far more deadly nuclear wastes likely are not far behind.

Nowhere has the Cold War's legacy lingered so poisonously as it has at the 560-square-mile Hanford reservation, operated by the federal government for more than 40 years to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs.

It is the most contaminated place in North America, with 80% of the spent nuclear fuel in the Department of Energy's inventory--2,100 metric tons in all--stored in a pair of aging basins, some of their fuel canisters crumbling and corroded. Deteriorating underground tanks a few miles away hold 54 million gallons of radioactive soup that over the years has made its way into the ground water.

How far has it leaked? There is already some tritium in the Columbia River, measurable in Richland's drinking water supply--although at well below federal safety standards. Mulberry bushes measured along the Hanford shore also have shown substantial amounts of strontium-90 and thorium, in addition to other toxic contaminants such as chromium.

None of it, federal officials believe, is enough to jeopardize public health. The Columbia's vast flows so far have diluted the contamination to well within federal standards. But imagine what it will be like in 10 or 20 years, say Washington state officials, who are pushing for increased cleanup efforts.

Under the most optimistic scenario, the Energy Department says it can clean up 10% of Hanford's leaky tanks by 2018. The rest of the waste won't be hauled away for 40 to 50 more years. What of removing the tanks themselves? No plan. Target date for completely removing contamination around the tank farms and plutonium processing plants? Never.

The magnitude of cleaning up the plants that manufactured America's atomic weapon arsenal--facilities such as the Idaho National Laboratory, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, Rocky Flats near Denver and Hanford--only recently has begun to be understood.

While the DOE expects to spend at least $186 billion over the next 70 years cleaning up 53 sites across the country, there is a growing realization that many of them will never be completely safe.

In fact, there are more than 100 sites nationwide with contamination that will require long-term stewardship. At places such as Hanford and Savannah River, it means keeping some of the gates locked forever. At a number of other sites, it means setting up agreements with local governments to make sure that, maybe half a century down the road, somebody doesn't unwittingly decide to build a housing tract or dig a well atop a buried store of poison.

"As the years go by, people are starting to realize that the non-cleanup cleanup is all there's going to be. The fact is that we don't know how to clean up some things," said Katherine Probst of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C., that studies environmental issues.

There has never been an environmental restoration project of Hanford's magnitude, with such a complex stream of deadly wastes spread over so vast an area, near so vital a waterway.

In addition to the stored wastes, there is an estimated 100 square miles of contaminated ground water beneath the site, the result of hundreds of billions of gallons of radioactive water dumped directly into the ground over the years.

Ten years and $15 billion into the cleanup, some waste has been treated or shifted to sturdier storage. But not a single ounce of Hanford's plutonium-making legacy has been hauled away.

That could change this spring, when waste processed at Hanford's new state-of-the-art facility is scheduled to be shipped to the government's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico for deep underground burial.

Hanford officials also recently announced a stepped-up timetable for the $1.7-billion project of retrieving, processing and storing the irradiated spent fuel canisters from their current basins just 1,500 feet from the Columbia River.

"There's more progress being done here than people realize," said Keith Klein, who was brought in as the DOE's site manager for Hanford last year.

But cleanup projections stretch out 50 years, with costs likely to exceed $100 billion. And even then, the industrial heart of the Hanford site known as the "200 area," where gray plutonium finishing plants sit abandoned and fenced off, will probably have to be closed to public access forever.

The current plan for getting rid of the 54 million gallons of tank waste is to separate the radionuclides, or radioactive material, from other compounds that may be highly toxic but are not radioactive. The toxic waste can be shuttled off to industrial hazardous waste repositories. The much more complicated and expensive plan for the radioactive waste calls for injecting it into liquid glass, or vitrifying it, and then burying the glass deep under the Nevada desert.

The DOE has awarded a $6.9-billion contract to British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. to build a plant to treat the first 10% of the radioactive wastes.

But scientists for the National Research Council already have expressed doubts. Retrieving the waste from the damaged tanks, they warn, could end up spilling just as much as already has leaked into the ground over the years, about 1 million gallons.

It would be hard to imagine a more treacherous chemical stew: An estimated 190 million curies of radioactivity (2-millionths of a curie of plutonium is deadly if it gets in a person's lungs) mix with various highly toxic compounds within the giant steel-lined tanks buried up to 30 feet underground. Most of the cement shells are 30 years beyond their design life. Inside, the waste has curdled and boiled, forming volatile gas deposits and toxic crusts atop the liquid. A total of 149 of the 177 tanks were built with a single steel shell. Of those, 69 already have leaked. For the rest, Hanford officials admit, it is probably only a matter of time.

Some progress has been made. More than half of the 77 million gallons in the most hazardous single-shell tanks has been pumped into relatively safer double-shell vessels. "We will have all the liquids we can get out of the single-shell tanks by 2004," said Jon Peschong of Hanford's office of river protection.

But that may be scant reason for relief. At least one of the double-shelled tanks has shown signs of deterioration. And none of the tanks should be considered safe storage, Hanford officials say.

Only in the last few years have scientists begun to understand how serious a threat Hanford poses to the Columbia River, thanks in large part to a pair of engineers who resisted the government's long-held assertion to the contrary.

For years, scientists knew there was some ground-water contamination from the more than 400 billion gallons of radioactive waste water that had been dumped there. But the hazardous wastes leaking out of the tanks--a nightmare, if they were to get into the ground water--posed no similar danger, scientists believed. The conventional wisdom was that radionuclides would bind to the soil immediately outside the tanks and stay there.

But John Brodeur, a geophysicist working for the former Hanford cleanup contractor, argued that there was no way to know for sure, since monitors on the tanks weren't equipped to detect movement of contamination in the soil. Nobody listened until Casey Ruud, a nuclear auditor who already had blown the whistle on a number of Hanford safety shortfalls, was named environmental operations manager for the tank farms in 1995.

The first thing he did was put Brodeur to work examining the soil below the storage tanks.

Brodeur and Ruud started on the 15 tanks at the SX farm, probing 130 feet into the ground. "What we found . . . was contamination so hot it swamped our equipment. We couldn't even read it," Ruud recalls.

Not until two years later, in November 1997, did Hanford's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory officially admit that "mobile" tank waste appeared to have reached the ground water 10 miles from the Columbia River.

And there was more: Two contaminants, tritium and nitrate, which move as rapidly as water through the soil, already had reached the river.

So far, ground-water manager Mike Thompson says, there is no indication that the worst stuff--radionuclides such as uranium, technetium-99 and cobalt-60--have made it as far as the river. The worst tank waste is probably still 20 years away, he believes.

But a disturbing alarm was sounded in October, when the highest ground-water level of technetium-99 ever found at Hanford--38 times the federal drinking water standard--was discovered near one of the leaky single-shell tanks. Technetium-99 is one of the compounds that moves fastest through the soil.

And then came last month's finding that tritium in the well near the old research and development disposal trenches was at the highest levels ever recorded on the Hanford site. The fact that other wells nearby showed only slight levels of contamination was a relief, but only a temporary one.

Norm Buske is an oceanographer and physicist who has conducted radiation surveys all along the Columbia shore for the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit group that supports whistle-blowers. He says his data show that the Hanford contamination may be moving much more quickly toward the river than previously believed, through a series of fast-track underground channels.

Already, Buske's Geiger counter readings have documented elevated levels of strontium-90 in mulberry bushes along the river, and near salmon nesting areas on the river bottom. The government's preliminary studies have shown no negative effects on young salmon hatchlings so far. They say the strontium-90 found in mulberries along the river most likely came from contaminated soil and not migrating ground water.

"It gets into the river and it's into everything: the fish, the food chain. The grapes, the apples, the cherries, the potatoes," warned Tom Carpenter, the Government Accountability Project's specialist on Hanford. "But there's a deep sickness in the whole system out there. The whole purpose of the apparatus at Hanford is not to find the problem. It's not to fix the problem. It's to assure the public that there isn't a problem."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times