FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Hanford is Ripe for a Radioactive Explosion

by

Photo by No Nukes NW | CC BY 2.0

Last week, an underground tunnel storing radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state collapsed, leaving a gaping 400 square foot hole. The tunnel, made up of dirt and wood, finally gave in.

How surprising was the accident, which forced thousands of workers to find safety? Not very, according to a report uncovered by the Seattle-based advocacy group Hanford Challenge.

In 1991, Westinghouse Hanford Company requested Los Alamos Technical Associates, Inc. (LATA) to evaluate the structural integrity of PUREX Storage Tunnel #1, where the collapse occurred. While the 1991 study of the tunnel indicated a low probability of any degradation of the pressure-treated timber in the tunnel, the report noted that the “only structural degradation that is occurring is due to the continued exposure of the timbers to the high gamma radiation field in the tunnel.”

While the report noted the effect of this exposure was minor at the time, the strength of the timber walls in a 1980 evaluation was only 65.4% of its original strength. The study recommended that another test be conducted in 2001 by the United States Forest Product Laboratory to check the integrity of the tunnel’s wood beams.

There’s no evidence any further tests were carried out in 2001, or any other time since the 1991 recommendation. The United States Forest Product Laboratory and Department of Energy (DOE) did not respond to several requests for comment.

“How can waste be left in a tunnel? Whose idea was that?” asks Rod Ewing, a Stanford University nuclear security researcher. “I’ve been to Hanford many, many times for conferences and things like that, and I don’t recall anyone saying that there was waste in tunnels underground. I can’t imagine why that would be the case.”

The Department of Energy said there were no signs of a radioactive release and opted to fill the hole with 50 truckloads of dirt and a plastic cover.

While this seems like a short-term fix to a serious problem, the question remains, will this stop more collapses that could have far more dangerous impacts? According to Doug Shoop, manager of the Department of Energy Richland Operations Office, the answer is no.

“There is potential for more collapse,” says Shoop.

“One of the main problems at Hanford is that DOE is understaffed and overtasked,” Dr. Donald Alexander, a high-level DOE physical chemist working at Hanford, told me. “As such, we cannot conduct in-depth reviews of each of the individual systems in the facilities. Therefore there is a high likelihood that several systems will be found to be inoperable or not perform to expectations.”

Dr. Alexander says that Hanford could see an event comparable to the 1957 explosion, known as the Kyshtym disaster, at Russia’s Mayak nuclear facility. Kyshtym is considered the world’s third largest nuclear disaster after Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Considered Hanford’s”sister-facility,” Mayak also produced plutonium for nuclear bombs. At least 22 villages and 10,000 people were forced to evacuate when Mayak blew. According to one estimate by the Soviet Health Ministry in Chelyabinsk, the ultimate death toll caused by the Mayak explosion was 8,015 people over a 32 year period.

Hanford has total of 177 underground storage waste tanks, of which there are 149 that are single-shelled and considered leak-prone by the EPA.

“In the extreme,” says Dr. Alexander, “another Mayak-scale incident” could occur at Hanford.

Poor oversight and a culture of cutting-corners could well lead to a deadly explosion like the one feared by Dr. Alexander.

So, what’s the big deal?

Just another aging nuclear facility on the brink of disaster.

More articles by:

JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, co-edited with Jeffrey St. Clair and published by AK Press. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank

November 22, 2017
Jonathan Cook
Syria, ‘Experts’ and George Monbiot
William Kaufman
The Great American Sex Panic of 2017
Richard Moser
Young Patriots, Black Panthers and the Rainbow Coalition
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Darkness
Lee Artz
Cuba Libre, 2017
Mark Weisbrot
Mass Starvation and an Unconstitutional War: US / Saudi Crimes in Yemen
Frank Stricker
Republican Tax Cuts: You’re Right, They’re Not About Economic Growth or Lifting Working-Class Incomes
Edward Hunt
Reconciling With Extremists in Afghanistan
Dave Lindorff
Remembering Media Critic Ed Herman
Nick Pemberton
What to do About Al Franken?
November 21, 2017
Gregory Elich
What is Behind the Military Coup in Zimbabwe?
Louisa Willcox
Rising Grizzly Bear Deaths Raise Red Flag About Delisting
David Macaray
My Encounter With Charles Manson
Patrick Cockburn
The Greatest Threats to the Middle East are Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman
Stephen Corry
OECD Fails to Recognize WWF Conservation Abuses
James Rothenberg
We All Know the Rich Don’t Need Tax Cuts
Elizabeth Keyes
Let There be a Benign Reason For Someone to be Crawling Through My Window at 3AM!
L. Ali Khan
The Merchant of Weapons
Thomas Knapp
How to Stop a Rogue President From Ordering a Nuclear First Strike
Lee Ballinger
Trump v. Marshawn Lynch
Michael Eisenscher
Donald Trump, Congress, and War with North Korea
Tom H. Hastings
Reckless
Franklin Lamb
Will Lebanon’s Economy Be Crippled?
Linn Washington Jr.
Forced Anthem Adherence Antithetical to Justice
Nicolas J S Davies
Why Do Civilians Become Combatants In Wars Against America?
November 20, 2017
T.J. Coles
Doomsday Scenarios: the UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About the Prospect of Nuclear War and Accident
Peter Linebaugh
On the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest
Patrick Bond
Zimbabwe Witnessing an Elite Transition as Economic Meltdown Looms
Sheldon Richman
Assertions, Facts and CNN
Ben Debney
Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?
LV Filson
Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine
Thomas Knapp
Impeachment Theater, 2017 Edition
Binoy Kampmark
Trump in Asia
Curtis FJ Doebbler
COP23: Truth Without Consequences?
Louisa Willcox
Obesity in Bears: Vital and Beautiful
Deborah James
E-Commerce and the WTO
Ann Garrison
Burundi Defies the Imperial Criminal Court: an Interview with John Philpot
Robert Koehler
Trapped in ‘a Man’s World’
Stephen Cooper
Wiping the Stain of Capital Punishment Clean
Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail