Hanford Nuclear Site- What You May Not Know

Image Source

If you are concerned about the fluoride debate, you should be REALLY concerned about the Hanford site.”                                                 -Green drinks guest speaker

This Months Portland Green Drinks featured a presentation on the Hanford Nuclear Site. Two guest speakers from Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR Oregon Chapter) highlighted the Particles on the Wall exhibit, which utilizes art and science to tell the Hanford Site story. (See Info about the exhibit at the bottom of this post.)

“The display was thought of during a happy hour brain storming session, so we thought it was Green Drinks appropriate,” said Kelly Campbell, PSR’s executive director, with a laugh. “Hanford is kinda a downer, so having a drink makes it a little easier,” Maxine Fookson, a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who volunteers on the Oregon PSR Peace Work Group, adds with a smile.

Although Campbell and Fookson’s attitudes were lighthearted, their message was delivered with the utmost concern, poise and passion as the women explained the Particles on the Wall’s mission, a brief history on the Hanford Site, and current concerns.

Below is a quick overview for those unaware of the Hanford site, or need a little refresher, as well as key take-away thoughts.

Who What Where:

Hanford occupies 586-square-miles (for comparison, Los Angeles is 503-sqaure-miles) in the desert terrain of southeastern Washington state along the Columbia River, and sits approximately 250 miles upriver from Portland Oregon. It’s the site where plutonium was produced for the devastating bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. It’s considered the most toxic site in the Western Hemisphere. 

Social Justice Concerns:

For centuries, the Hanford area was home to several tribes of Native Americans.  According to the Hanford website, “Remnants, artifacts, and burial sites associated with historical Native American activity are found throughout the site and are protected by law.” Hmmm…doesn’t seem like their was much protection to me. 

“When the War Department decided to locate portions of the Manhattan Project to this part of Washington, it also decided that work to develop atomic weapons had to be done in secret. Subsequently, in early 1943, all of the residents of White Bluffs and Hanford were told to evacuate their homes and abandon their farms, and were given just 30 days and a small amount of money to do so.” -Source 

Once the residents vacated the area, people from all over the country came to Hanford creating a workforce of 51,000 to build the nuclear reactors and processing facilities required to extract plutonium for atomic weapons. Apparently, very few of the workers knew what they were building (until the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945), but worked under the guise of “very important war work.”

After World War II, production increased in response to the “Cold War” and continued until 1987 when the last reactor ceased operation. 

Environmental Concerns:

So why is nuclear a big deal? – For one, it produces a gigantic amount of toxic waste that we still have no idea how to get rid of, and no safe way to store.

The main Hanford product, plutonium-239, has a half-life of over 24,000 years. At this rate of decay, the plutonium produced at Hanford will take 200,000 years or more to become stable nonradioactive material. -Source 

The Tri-Party Agreement-Cleanup:

In 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Washington State Department of Ecology, entered into a legal Tri-Party agreement to clean up the Hanford Site.

According to Fookson and Campbell, the federal government spends 2 billion dollars annually on Hanford cleanup, that’s 1/3 of the money spent on nuclear cleanup in the country. With the sense of urgency generated by World War II and the prevailing secrecy, wastes were dumped in the soil and the river. Additionally, large volumes of high-level waste were placed in huge single-shell storage tanks, with the assumption that it could all be taken care of properly after the war.

As you can see in the picture at the top of the post, the Hanford site sits RIGHT ON the Columbia river. Nuclear anything (power for electricity, weapon development etc.), requires a HUGE amount of water. The diagram below helps explain how the toxins leak into the soil, water table, and the river. 

Image Source

Health Concerns:

“The government did not reveal a number of significant health-related events until forced to do so in the late 1980s when citizens exercised the Freedom of Information Act. Although highly sophisticated radiation monitoring was performed throughout the history of Hanford, the government did not tell the public the details, repeatedly assuring them that everything was safe.” -Source 

Understanding of radiobiology slowly evolved. Initial hopes that the soil would hold wastes from leaching into the groundwater were eventually proven wrong. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster alerted the public that a serious accident could occur at Hanford as well, and the resulting contamination of the Columbia and its basin would affect the population of the entire Northwest. 

“The true situation at Hanford remained hidden from the public. The community faith in “good jobs, good pay, and a good cause” had long fostered an emphasis on production and a neglect of safety.”  -Source

Only after a particularly brave inspector and whistleblower leaked information to the press, and a very revealing series of expose articles appeared in the newspapers, did any meaningful changes occur. 

Local Stories:

In addition to the towns of Hanford and White Bluffs, the 300 residents of Richland were forced to leave their homes as well. Richland is the only town of the three that still exists with a current population of 48,000. The high school mascot remains to this day the “Bombers,” with the recognizable mushroom cloud as its logo.

During the PSR presentation, Fookson read moving, and often heart-wrenching poetry written by individuals effected by the Hanford site, some from the Richland region, “…even the snow was dusty…even the dust was radioactive, though we didn’t know it.” 

Image Source

Columbia Generating System-Nuclear Power Plant:

Located 10 miles North of Richland, this reactor provides Washington with approximately 10% of the state’s electrical generation capacity. With the 1992 retirement of Oregon’s Trojan Nuclear Power Plant, it is the only commercial nuclear power reactor remaining in the Pacific Northwest. According to Fookson and Campbell, Oregon receives approximately 3%-4% of its power from the Columbia Generating System, and the plant recently received an “okay” for 20 more years of operation.

Grave concerns about the use of nuclear power energy has prevailed for decades, however with the catastrophic events of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster following the earthquake and Tsunami on March 11, 2011, potential problems have been revisited. 

Potential for Pacific Northwest Catastrophic Event:

The Pacific Northwest is due for a huge earthquake, and scientists say that it’s not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when.”  Need a recap of the destruction caused by the 9.0 Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan on Fukushima? : A series of equipments failures, nuclear meltdowns, releases of radioactive materials and foreseeable years of cleanup. Can you imagine something similar at the Washington sites in the event of a catastrophic earthquake in our region?

Along the Columbia river, electricity is generated through hydroelectric power (utilizing the dams), wind power (utilizing the wind turbines) and nuclear power generated at the Columbia Generating System plant. Did you know that when there is too much electricity on the grid (yes, our grid is in need of a SERIOUS overhaul), the wind turbines are shut down, not the nuclear plant, because it is next to impossible to turn that power plant off. Does this make progressive, environmental sense?

Where should our Energy go? What Can We Do?

As explained by Campbell and Fookson, you don’t have to be an expert on nuclear power and the Hanford site to be concerned. Since the Hanford site is in Washington, Oregonians don’t have any jurisdiction, but we are equally effected, (those arbitrary state lines). Portland is far closer to the Hanford site than Seattle for example. I encourage you to contact your local politicians, and Washington state politicians to share your concern about the cleanup of the Hanford site, and the need to close the Columbia generating system power plant. 

I will close with Campbell’s thought provoking and inspirational plea.

When we think about the incredible national support, the immense amount of money, the quick response, and the brilliant minds brought together to create the technology of the atomic bomb, it’s truly amazing.

What would it look like, if we took that same energy, funding, citizen support, brilliant minds, and sense of urgency towards fighting climate change… Imagine what we could accomplish!  

You are cordially invited to join Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) for Particles on the Wall, a multi-disciplinary exhibit combining visual and literary arts, science, and historical memorabilia to explore the lasting impacts of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the nuclear age.

When: Exhibit runs from May 3rd through June 14th. Open to the public weekdays from 8:30 AM until 5:30 PM and Sundays 8:30 AM until 2:00 PM.

Where: The Ecotrust Building, 2nd Floor (721 NW 9th Avenue in Portland)        Free and open to the public!

Want to Tour The Hanford Site? It’s Free!

For Additional information on the the History of the Hanford Site Visit: Hanford History, Hanford Site

For Additional News Stories on the Hanford Site Visit:

 NBC News.com:  “Six tanks now said to be leaking at contaminated Hanford Nuclear Site”                                                                  Huffington Post: “Hanford Nuclear Waste Tanks Could Explode, Agency Explains”                                                                              Scientific American: “Hanford Nuclear Waste Cleanup Plant May Be Too Dangerous”

Please share your thoughts and additional resources in the comment section below-thank you!

 

 

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2 responses to “Hanford Nuclear Site- What You May Not Know

  1. I remember dating a guy in the Tri-Cities area a few years back who was a farmer on 800 acres of a part of it was formerly Hanford housing and kept thinking, the groundwater that is feeding this farm (asparagus, raspberries, and more…) is on toxic land. The nuclear cleanup industry powers most of the non-farming jobs in the Tri-Cities and therefore the culture is extremely sensitive (and often aggressive) about these concerns. Needless to say it’s Republican country out there and things get a bit in a twist when you say their cleanup (storing waste as glass underground) isn’t safe. It’s a terrifying topic that’s got to be addressed not just to protect the environment, but the hundreds of thousands affected both passively and directly.

  2. Thanks for adding that Aimee! This is such a HUGE issue with multiple layers, I had to cut myself off, or I would have written a novel. :) The info I found certainly addressed the idea of pride in that area’s workforce being a challenge to foster awareness and change. Sociology is fascinating!

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