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Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast

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There is a dangerous radiological threat to the West Coast of the United States that puts the health of millions of Americans at risk. It includes dangers to public health, dangers to the food supply, and dangers to future generations from long-lived radionuclides, including some of the most toxic material in the world. It is not Fukushima, it is Hanford. While radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns is reaching the West Coast, carried across the ocean from Japan, the radiation from Hanford is already there, has been there for 70 years, and is in serious risk of catastrophe that could dwarf the effects of Fukushima even on Japan.

Hanford, on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington State, is the site where the United States produced the majority of its plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. These tens of thousands of American nuclear weapons were built as an end product of the high levels of plutonium production at Hanford. The first three nuclear reactors on Earth were built at Hanford, with a total of nine nuclear power plants being built there eventually. Nuclear power plants operated for ten years in this world before they were ever used to generate electricity. Electricity is a secondary purpose for nuclear power plants, they were designed and built as plutonium manufacturing plants.

Hanford was the first of these plutonium production sites. The two worst radiological disasters (besides nuclear weapon detonations) in the first four decades of the Atomic Age were accidents at the plutonium production sites of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, both in 1957. Military plutonium production sites remain among the most contaminated sites on Earth. During the period of operation more than 67 metric tons of plutonium were manufactured at Hanford. Hanford is home to 60% (by volume) of all of the high level radioactive waste stored in the United States. Nearly 80% of the Department of Energy’s inventory of spent nuclear fuel rods are stored just 400 yards away from the Columbia River. (Statistics taken from Physicians for Social Responsibility webpage)

Here is a very brief review of some of the worst impacts and dangers at the Hanford Site.

The Green Run

In December 1949 the United States deliberately released an immense amount of radiation into populated areas at the Hanford Site during the notorious Green Run. It was the largest intentional release of radiation conducted by the U.S. government. While nuclear testing in Nevada exposed many people to significant amounts of radiation, this was a byproduct of the desire to test weapons. In the Green Run the intention was specifically to release the radiation into the Hanford area. The Green Run was conducted in reaction to the test of the first Soviet nuclear weapon in Kazakhstan several months earlier. The first indications that the Soviets had successfully tested a nuclear weapon came when sensors at Hanford picked up the radiation several days later. It was decided to release radiation “similar” to that of the Soviet test to develop and hone detection equipment and better analysis of the Soviet program.

After the end of World War Two the U.S. method of processing the plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel rods involved “maturing” the rods, or letting them cool for approximately 100 days to allow short-lived nuclear isotopes (like iodine-131) to decay. Kate Brown has a detailed discussion of the decisions that eventually led to extending this maturing period at Hanford during this time in her pivotal book, Plutopia. The U.S. assumed that in their rush to produce nuclear weapons as quickly as possible the Soviets were “short-cooling” their plutonium being manufactured at the Mayak Complex, and thus processing the plutonium before these short-lived radionuclides had decayed. The Green Run was a plan to mimic this and process plutonium that had not cooled for 100 days, but instead had cooled only a few weeks and was, hence, “green.” To increase the ability of the radiation detection equipment in the area, and on the airplanes that participated, the filters at the plutonium processing plants that specifically filtered out iodine-131 were turned off for the 12-hour duration of the Green Run.

As bad as this deliberate release of radiation into the downwind communities was, things did not go as planned. The intended amount of iodine-131 to be released was dwarfed by the actual release, which was double what was anticipated. While scientists imagined they would then be tracking a coherent cloud as it moved away from the site, the resulting radiation dispersed throughout a vast area stretching across much of Washington State and into Southern Oregon. Concentrations were found in valleys and lowlands as the radiation distributed irregularly. Internalizing iodine-131 is a direct cause of thyroid cancer.

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EPA map of iodine-131 distribution following the Green Run showing both heavy dose area and total distribution

The Tank Farms

Few things pose as great a threat to public health at Hanford than the Tank Farms. The Tank Farms are 177 single and double shelled waste storage tanks sited at two different locations on the Hanford complex. In the early days at Hanford, when plutonium for nuclear weapons was separated from the spent nuclear fuel, the leftover uranium from the process was stored in these tanks. Over the years a wide range of the highest level radioactive and chemical wastes were dumped into these tanks. According to the State of Washington the 177 tanks hold 53 million gallons of the highest level radioactive waste existing in the United States. 67 of the single shelled tanks have leaked over 1 million gallons of this highly radioactive waste which is migrating through the soil and groundwater into the Columbia River. In 2011 the Department of Energy emptied the contents of many of the leaking single shelled tanks into double shelled tanks, however the design of the double shelled tanks was found to be flawed, resulting in further leaks.

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A section of the Tank Farms at Hanford.  Photo: D0E.

Dealing with the 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste is a multi-billion-dollar effort designed to manage the waste by 2050, or roughly 100 years after it was first manufactured. Currently almost nothing has yet been accomplished towards this goal besides the paying out of the contracts to design plans and begin the construction of the “Vitrification Plant” that is intended to encase the waste in glass. In recent years’ numerous whistleblowers have come forward from among Hanford employees to describe the flawed design and safety protocols of the Vit Plant. Most of these whistleblowers have been fired by the contractors running the Hanford cleanup. One, Walter Tamosaitis, the research and technology manager of the Vit Plant, was vindicated and awarded $4.3M to settle his wrongful termination suit, however other whistleblowers have been dismissed from their positions since that award. While the liquid waste has been extracted from the tanks the remaining high level waste in the tanks remains largely untreated.

Hanford employees who work maintaining the Tank Farms have suffered serious and unexplained health problems in recent years. Each year numerous workers have been exposed to “vapors” and have become sick or lost consciousness and required hospitalization. Many have suffered ongoing health problems as a result of these exposures. In 2014 over 40 workers suffered from such exposures including a two-week period in late March that saw 26 workers hospitalized. According to KGW news in Portland, a 1997 study conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory warned that workers exposed to vapors from specific tanks would have significantly increase risk of cancers and other serious diseases, but the conclusions of this report “were never made public, shared with Hanford workers or members of the federally chartered Hanford Advisory Board.”

On 29 September 1957 a tank containing waste similar to the waste in the Hanford Tank Farms exploded at the Mayak plutonium production site in the former Soviet Union, known as the Kyshtym Disaster. The cooling system for one of the tanks at the Mayak site failed and the temperature inside the tank rose eventually causing a chemical explosion that sent a radioactive cloud for over 350 km downwind and heavily contaminated an area near the plant with catastrophic levels of cesium-137 and strontium-90. This was one of the worst radiological disasters in human history at the time, and remained so, along with the fire three weeks later inside a nuclear reactor core at the Windscale facility (now called Sellafield) in Cumbria in the United Kingdom, until the Chernobyl meltdown and explosion in 1987. The Kyshtym Disaster, which a Soviet study concluded resulted directly in 8,000 deaths (not to mention illnesses) was the consequence of an explosion in one tank. At Hanford there are currently 177 such tanks, each containing similar disastrous potential, and located beside one another.

Contaminations and Dangers

The EPA has identified between 1,500-1,200 specific sites on the Hanford grounds where toxic or radioactive chemicals have been dumped. The ambiguity of that number speaks volumes about the lack of record keeping and functional data for addressing these problems. If plans for remediation of the waste in the Tank Farms at the Hanford Site are carried out as intended, there remains massive contamination of the soil and groundwater under the site, leeching into the Columbia River and surrounding countryside. That is if things go well. Things could go badly. The Kyshtym Disaster shows the dangers of an explosion in one of the tanks storing waste such as that stored in the 177 tanks at the Hanford Tank Farms. An incident in which multiple tanks experience problems could be catastrophic beyond our imagination. What’s more, there is not effective containment or security at the Tank Farms to face the threats of current times. While the countries around the world worry about the dangers of flying airplanes or drones into nuclear power plants, or of cyber attacks on the power supplies to such plants, those sites have at least some effective containment around the toxic materials they hold. The Tank Farms are open air and unshielded. The amount of deadly radiological materials contained in these tanks is far beyond that contained at any single nuclear site in the United States.

Hanford is Here, Fukushima is There

The triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi was a horrible disaster that has released massive amounts of radiation into the environment. The daily passage of tons of water through the watershed below the plants where the melted nuclear cores (corium) sit smoldering will continue to release radiation into the ocean for decades to come. The health toll that this will take, especially on the children of Northern Japan is horrifying. Already a much higher than expected incidence of thyroid cancers have been reported in area youth. This is the first of the cancers to present and is the tip of the iceberg of health impacts on those in the area. The release of long lived radionuclides such as cesium-137 and uranium into the ecosystem presents dangers to people all around the world as these particles cycle through the biosphere. But the largest and most tragic impacts of Fukushima will be on people in Japan. The plumes from the explosions of March 2011 deposited the bulk of their fallout within a few hundred kilometers of the plants. Radiation from the regular releases of contaminated water into the ocean, and the passage of groundwater across the corium will continue to bring radioactive particles into the Pacific Ocean where they will work their way up the food chain much as the fallout deposited by atmospheric nuclear testing did in the Pacific during the 1940s and 1950s. Some of that radiation is reaching the West Coast of the U.S., and this will continue as long as the site hemorrhages contaminated water into the ocean, which will likely be for some decades. This disaster should not be discounted. But it should also be remembered that it is the people of Japan, and specifically the children of Japan who live in the areas where the fallout plumes deposited that face the direst of these consequences.

There is currently a great deal of awareness about the arrival of Fukushima radiation on the West Coast. There are many people who say they will not eat fish from the Pacific Ocean, or eat food from Japan. At the same time, there is no discussion about eating Salmon from the Columbia River, drinking wines from the Columbia Valley, or fruit from the orchards that fill the downwind area around Hanford. The amount of radiation in the Hanford area dwarfs the amount arriving on the West Coast of the United States on a scale that is mindboggling. What is arriving from Fukushima is the result of the meltdowns of three nuclear cores, and it is crossing an ocean. What is stored at Hanford and leeching into the Columbia is resultant from 2/3rds of the high level nuclear waste of the United States, and is from production that began decades before Fukushima was built. This is not just contamination that is arriving today, or this year, it has been saturating the groundwater and ecosystem of the Northwest for more than 70 years.

Furthermore, the impacts from Hanford are not only what may happen, but what has already happened. Hanford downwinders have suffered generations of cancers and other diseases across a wide area of Eastern Washington and beyond. There is a legacy of death and illness that spans generations downwind from Hanford, and the source of those diseases percolates away in the tanks and waste sites that sit along the Columbia River, spreading deeper into the surrounding ecosystem. The radiation from Fukushima may slowly seep across the vast Pacific, while at Hanford we have the threat of a radiological explosion or terrorist act that could release volumes more radiation than was released by Fukushima and deposited in Japan any day of any week, and spread radiation across the West Coast and mountain west.

By all means we should be vigilant and monitor the levels of Fukushima radiation that arrives on the West Coast of the United States, while remembering that the most profound victims of Fukushima are children living near the site. But we should turn our attention and concerns to the radioactive wound that seeps radiation into the ecosystem of the American and Canadian West every day and threatens it with a radiological disaster that would dwarf the worst that Fukushima has done even in Japan. Stand up for Hanford whistleblowers. Demand transparency on waste management practices and plans at Hanford. Stand up for the health of Hanford workers who are being exposed to dangerous vapors in their workplace. And demand support and compensation for the downwind families and workers whose health and wellbeing has been devastated by the most radioactive site in the United States.

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Robert Jacobs is a historian of nuclear technologies and radiation technopolitics at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University. @bojacobs.

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