FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Radioactive Leaks and Plumbers at Hanford

The outback of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington State is called the T-Farm, a rolling expanse of high desert sloping toward the last untamed reaches of the Columbia River. The T stands for tanks, huge single-hulled containers buried some fifty feet beneath basalt volcanic rock and sand holding the lethal detritus of Hanford’s fifty-year run as the nation’s H-bomb factory.

Those tanks had an expected lifespan of 35 years; the radioactive gumbo inside them has a half-life of 250,000 years. Dozens of those tanks have now started to corrode and leak, releasing the most toxic material on earth, plutonium and uranium-contaminated sludge and liquid, on an inexorable path toward the Columbia, the world’s most productive salmon fishery and the source of irrigation water for the farms and orchards of the Inland Empire, centered on Spokane in eastern Washington.

Internal documents from the Department of Energy and various private contractors working at Hanford reveal that at least one million gallons of radioactive sludge has already leaked out of at least 67 different tanks. Those tanks and others continue to leak and that the leaks are getting much larger.

One internal report shows the results from a borehole drilled into the ground between two of Hanford’s largest tanks. Using gamma spectrometry, geologists detected a fifty-fold increase in contamination between 1996 and 2002. The leak from those tanks, and perhaps an underground pipeline, was described as “insignificant” a decade ago. Six years later that radioactive dribble had swelled up into a “continuous plume” of highly radioactive Cesium-137.

Obviously, there’s been a major radioactive breach from those tanks. But to date the Department of Energy has refused to publicly report the incident, even though it was reported by their own geologists.

A few hundred yards away, a tank called TY-102, the third largest tank at Hanford, is also leaking. Radioactive water is draining out of this single-hulled container and a broken subsurface pipe into what geologists call the “vadose zone”, the stratum of subsurface soil just above the water table. In an internal 1998 report, the Grand Junction Office of the DOE detected significant contamination 42 to 52 feet below the surface and concluded in a memo to Hanford managers that the “high levels of gamma radiation” came from “a subsurface source” of Cesium-137, which likely resulted from leakage from tank TY-102″.

This alarming report was swiftly buried by Hanford officials. So too was the evidence of leakage at tanks TY-103 and TY-106. Instead, the DOE publicly declared that portion of the tank farm to be “controlled, clean and stable”.

No surprises here. The long-standing strategy of the DOE has been to conceal any evidence of radioactive leaking at Hanford, a policy that was excoriated in a 1980 internal review by the department’s Inspector General, which concluded that “Hanford’s existing waste management policies and practices have themselves sufficed to keep publicity about possible tank leaks to a minimum.”

Needless to say, the Reagan years didn’t augure a new forthrightness from the people who run Hanford. Seven years and several congressional hearings after the Inspector General’s report was released, bureaucratic cover-up and public denial were still the DOE’s operational reflex to any disturbing data bubbling up out of Hanford’s boreholes. By 1987, Hanford officials had learned an important lesson in the art of concealment. The easiest way to avoid bad press and public hostility was to simply stop monitoring sites that seemed the most likely to produce unpleasant information.

It is now clear that the tanks began leaking as early as 1956, only a few years after the Atomic Energy Commission began pumping the poisonous sludge into the giant subterranean containers. It is also clear that the federal government covered up evidence of those leaks since the moment it learned of them.

How many tanks are leaking? How far has the contamination spread? The DOE isn’t talking. It isn’t even looking for answers. But geologists estimated that the faster migrating contaminants, such as uranium, will move from the groundwater beneath Hanford’s central plateau to the Columbia in something around 25 years. That means that the first traces of radiated water could have started seeping into the Columbia in 2001.

This reckless strategy persists. In a document called “Official Characterization Plan of Hanford” -essentially a kind of 3-D map of contamination at the site ­the DOEchose not to include Cobalt-60, a highly radioactive material that is present at deep levels across the tank farm. In addition, the Hanford plan fails to mention the fact that its own surveys have shown large amounts of Cesium-137 and Cobalt-60 forming radioactive pools in the geological stratum called the plio-pleistocene unit, the last barrier between Hanford’s soils and water table.

If the DOE remains locked onto this courseit will never acknowledge or even investigate the potentially lethal flow of radioactivity toward the great river of the West. That’s because the managers of Hanford say they will only research potential leaks if they detect a level of contamination several times higher than that ever recorded at Hanford ­a standard clearly designed to shield them from ever having to pursue any subsurface leak investigation or publicly admit the existence of such leaks.

To help Hanford’s managers avoid ever discovering such embarrassing leaks, the site plan calls for them to drill the penetrometer holes, through which contamination is measured, only to a depth of 40 feet ­ or two feet above the bottom of the tanks, guaranteeing that they will avoid picking up any radioactive traces from the region of the most dangerous contamination.

There’s a reason the Hanford managers want the public to believe that most of the contamination at the site is limited to the surface terrain. Theoretically, the topsoil can be scooped up and, with large government contracts, transferred to a more secure site or zapped into a glass-like substance through the big vitrification center now under construction. There’s no way to de-contaminate groundwater or the Columbia River. Their only hope for containment is to contain the issue politically by plumbing the leaks from whistleblowers.

There’s no question that the subsurface leakage is serious, extensive and dangerous. The internal survey of Hanford by the Grand Junction Office detected high levels of C-137 deeper than 100 feet below the surface ­ and 60 feet deeper than the current plan calls for probing. That report concluded that both C-137 and CO-60 had “reached groundwater in this area of the tank farm”.

Consider this: C-137 is a slow traveling contaminant. How far have faster moving radioactive materials, such as uranium, spread? No one knows. No one is even looking.

The DOE and Hanford’s contractors want to close down the C Quadrant of the tank farm and declare it cleaned up, even though more than 10 per cent of the waste at that site remains in tanks with documented leaks. There is mounting evidence that a plume of Tritium-contaminated sludge has recently penetrated the groundwater there as well.

John Brodeur is one of the nation’s top environmental engineers and a world-class geologist. In 1997, after a whistleblower at Hanford disclosed evidence that the groundwater beneath the central plateau had been contaminated by plumes of radioactivity, Hazel O’Leary commissioned Brodeur to investigate how far the contamination had spread. It proved to be a nearly impossible assignment since the DOE and its contractors had taken extreme measures to conceal the data or avoid collecting it entirely.

Now, nearly ten years later, Brodeur has once again been asked to assess the situation at one of the most contaminated sites on earth, this time for the environmental group Heart of the Northwest. His conclusions are disturbing.

“There remains much that we don’t know about the subsurface contamination plumes at Hanford,” says John Brodeur. “The only way to solve this dilemma is to identify what we don’t know up front and get it out on the table for discussion. This is difficult to do in the chilling work environment where bad data are commonplace, lies of omission are standard practice and people loose their jobs because they disagreed with some of the long-held institutional myths at Hanford.”

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering from the War on Terror. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

 

 

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
February 26, 2020
Matthew Hoh
Heaven Protect Us From Men Who Live the Illusion of Danger: Pete Buttigieg and the US Military
Jefferson Morley
How the US Intelligence Community is Interfering in the 2020 Elections
Patrick Cockburn
With Wikileaks, Julian Assange Did What All Journalists Should Do
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change and Voting 2020
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Russiagate: The Toxic Gift That Keeps on Giving
Andrew Bacevich
Going Off-Script in the Age of Trump
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Anti-Russian Xenophobia Reaches Ridiculous Levels
Ted Rall
Don’t Worry, Centrists. Bernie Isn’t Radical.
George Wuerthner
Whatever Happened to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition?
Scott Tucker
Democratic Socialism in the Twenty-First Century
Jonah Raskin
The Call of the Wild (2020): A Cinematic Fairy Tale for the Age of Environmental Disaster
George Ochenski
Why We Shouldn’t Run Government Like a Business
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange and the Imperium’s Face: Day One of the Extradition Hearings
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s Extradition Hearing Reveals Trump’s War on Free Press Is Targeting WikiLeaks Publisher
Peter Harrison
Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon? (Part Two)
Max Moran
Meet Brad Karp, the Top Lawyer Bankrolling the Democrats
David Swanson
Nonviolent Action for Peace
Ed Sanders
The Ex-Terr GooGoo Eyes “The Russkies Did it!” Plot
February 25, 2020
Michael Hudson
The Democrats’ Quandary: In a Struggle Between Oligarchy and Democracy, Something Must Give
Paul Street
The “Liberal” Media’s Propaganda War on Bernie Sanders
Sheldon Richman
The Non-Intervention Principle
Nicholas Levis
The Real Meaning of Red Scare 3.0
John Feffer
Cleaning Up Trump’s Global Mess
David Swanson
How Are We Going to Pay for Saving Trillions of Dollars?
Ralph Nader
Three Major News Stories That Need To Be Exposed
John Eskow
What Will You Do If the Democrats Steal It from Sanders?
Dean Baker
What If Buttigieg Said That He Doesn’t Accept the “Fashionable” View That Climate Change is a Problem?
Jack Rasmus
The Nevada Caucus and the Desperation of Democrat Elites
Howard Lisnoff
The Powerful Are Going After Jane Fonda Again
Binoy Kampmark
Viral Losses: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and Greed
John W. Whitehead
Gun-Toting Cops Endanger Students and Turn Schools into Prisons
Marshall Sahlins
David Brooks, Public Intellectual
February 24, 2020
Stephen Corry
New Deal for Nature: Paying the Emperor to Fence the Wind
M. K. Bhadrakumar
How India’s Modi is Playing on Trump’s Ego to His Advantage
Jennifer Matsui
Tycoon Battle-Bots Battle Bernie
Robert Fisk
There’s Little Chance for Change in Lebanon, Except for More Suffering
Rob Wallace
Connecting the Coronavirus to Agriculture
Bill Spence
Burning the Future: the Growing Anger of Young Australians
Eleanor Eagan
As the Primary Race Heats Up, Candidates Forget Principled Campaign Finance Stands
Binoy Kampmark
The Priorities of General Motors: Ditching Holden
George Wuerthner
Trojan Horse Timber Sales on the Bitterroot
Rick Meis
Public Lands “Collaboration” is Lousy Management
David Swanson
Bloomberg Has Spent Enough to Give a Nickel to Every Person Whose Life He’s Ever Damaged
Peter Cohen
What Tomorrow May Bring: Politics of the People
Peter Harrison
Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail