On the edge of Washington state, just a few miles from the great Columbia River, boiling radioactive sludge is seeping out of a huge underground tank known as B-109. Another tank, B-111, was found to be leaking a similarly noxious soup back in 2011 and has been polluting the soil and groundwater ever since. The Department of Energy (DOE), the agency ultimately in charge of this problem, isn’t doing a thing about it. Not that they don’t want to, they just don’t have an answer, so the leaks just keep on leaking.
Such is the business of Hanford, home to the largest cesspool of high-level radioactive waste in the country, 56 million gallons worth that sit in 177 hulking underground tanks that are nearly six decades passed their lifespans. Conceived during the Manhattan Project and ramped up during the Cold War, Hanford produced nearly all of the plutonium that filled up the US’s massive nuclear arsenal, including the fuel for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. It wasn’t all fun and war crimes, however, the radioactive aftermath of this military behemoth will be with us for hundreds of thousands of years to come.
While the official clean-up of Hanford commenced in the late 1980s, very little progress has been been in remediating the site, which is half the size of Rhode Island. It’s also now the most expensive environmental clean-up in history and arguably the most toxic place on Earth.
If you weren’t already aware, nuclear waste is bad for you. It’s also bad for the environment. Even proponents of nuclear technologies acknowledge these basic facts, which is why Republicans and Democrats are intent on paying the bill to clean it all up. In the case of Hanford, that invoice is mounting, with the latest Government Accountability Office estimates putting the price tag at $677 billion, with $177 billion already spent.
All of that money, which is dolled out by Congress every year in its DOE budget, is currently lining the pockets of a few large contractors. Bechtel, a company that has reaped the spoils of many of America’s most lucrative ventures, has for twelve years been in charge of Hanford’s most important undertaking, building a huge vitrification facility known as the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP), which is to one day turn all of Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste into glass rods so that it can be safely stored for the next 250,000 years (the lifespan of plutonium). The plant was to be up and running years ago, but despite many promises and various deadline extensions, not a single drop of Hanford’s high-level waste has yet to be vitrified. Some estimates put construction of the plant at $20 billion and operation costs upwards of $60 billion. There’s a lot of cash to be made.
It’s not a stretch to say that Bechtel has done a miserable job out at Hanford, and they’ve been reprimanded on numerous occasions for their shoddy work. In 2018, the DOE released a letter lambasting the company for quality and design problems resulting in “potentially unrecoverable quality issues” and “a lack of corrective actions” in regard to the company’s work on WTP.
Then there is the case of a massive Bechtel rip-off. In September 2020, Bechtel and AECOM Energy & Construction Inc. agreed to pay the federal government almost $58 million in fines. From 2009 to 2019, Bechtel and AECOM were overcharging the government for the “unreasonable and unallowable idle time” of its workers. Four whistleblowers in 2016 exposed the scheme, for which the companies paid a fine of $125 million after they “knowingly violated quality standards at Hanford and used substandard materials.” This hefty bill wasn’t enough to deter these Bechtel crooks, and they continued to rip off taxpayers for three more years, never having to admit guilt publicly.
In 2019, the DOE Office of Inspector General downgraded the company’s Contractor Performance Assessment Ratings for 2018–early 2019, citing ongoing investigations Bechtel was facing, moving the company from “satisfactory” to “marginal.” Even so, Bechtel is on the Hanford job and still moving deadline goalposts while pocketing a mountain of cash. Their contracts with the DOE continue to be renewed.
None of this has stopped Republicans and Democrats in Congress from working to ensure Bechtel stays on the job. Currently, $2 billion is funneled to the clean-up effort each year, with Bechtel receiving the lion’s share of the money. Washington state’s Rep. Dan Newhouse (R), who represents central Washington, and Washington Senator Patty Murray (D), recently signed a letter to President Biden insisting more money is needed at Hanford to keep the clean-up steaming ahead to the tune of $191 billion. Sen. Murray sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and Newhouse on the House Appropriations Committee, where both have been staunch advocates for increasing the Hanford budget. “… I’ll keep working across the aisle to deliver the resources we need at Hanford,” says Murray.
This isn’t to say Hanford doesn’t need to be remediated. It certainly does. It also doesn’t mean the amount spent is too much. Most people would agree that no price is too high to ensure Hanford is one-day safe — free of its high-level radioactive waste. But what should be called on by Congress, especially those that represent the state of Washington, is not just more funding but more accountability and more transparency along with it.
All of DOE’s Hanford contracts should be made public. Every single dollar should be accounted for. There should be public hearings and more government oversight. Additionally, several DOE officials and scientists have told me they believe that technical staff at the Hanford site is lacking, that they can’t manage such a complex job with so few workers. As a result, Bechtel is running the show. The DOE needs help.
The dangers of not getting Hanford under control are simply too great. Aside from the leaking tanks and the radioactive sewage polluting groundwater, inching toward the Columbia River, the tanks, which produce hydrogen, are also a ticking time bomb that, if ignited, could create a Chornobyl-like radioactive explosion that would be unlike anything this country has ever experienced, killing thousands, destroying entire cities, and leveling the economy. It’s a very real and frightening scenario.
These are just some reasons the Hanford charade should not continue with its business as usual. Congress needs to put its foot down and demand a radical shift, with far more public input and corporate accountability. The stakes are simply too high to let Hanford continue creeping toward atomic oblivion.
Join Joshua Frank for the screening of Atomic Bamboozle at the Kiggins Theater in Vancouver, Washington, on June 7. He will introduce the film and discuss his book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America.