The Cold War’s Toxic Legacy: Costly, Dangerous Cleanups at Atomic Bomb Production Sites
By William J. Kinsella
Seventy-five years ago, in March 1943, a mysterious construction project began at a remote location in eastern Washington state. Over the next two years some 50,000 workers built an industrial site occupying half the area of Rhode Island, costing more than $230 million—equivalent to $3.1 billion today. Few of those workers, and virtually no one in the surrounding community, knew the facility's purpose.
The site was called Hanford, named for a small town whose residents were displaced to make way for the project. Its mission became clear at the end of World War II. Hanford had produced plutonium for the first nuclear test in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, and for the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki on Aug. 9.
As a researcher in environmental and energy communication, I've studied the legacies of nuclear weapons production. From 2000 to 2005, I served with a citizen advisory board that provides input to state and federal officials on a massive environmental cleanup program at Hanford, now one of the most contaminated sites in the world.
As U.S. leaders consider producing new nuclear weapons, I believe they should study lessons from Hanford carefully. Hanford provides one of the more dramatic examples of problems that unfolded—and persist today—at nuclear sites where production and secrecy took priority over safety and environmental protection.
A Nationwide Nuclear Network
Hanford was one of three large facilities anchoring the Manhattan Project – the crash program to build an atomic bomb. It was part of a larger complex linking facilities across the nation. A plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, enriched uranium and operated a prototype nuclear reactor. Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico assembled a cadre of world-class scientists to design and build the weapons, using materials produced at the other sites. Smaller facilities across the nation made other contributions.
As World War II phased into the Cold War and the U.S.-Soviet arms race escalated, new sites were added in Ohio, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Colorado and elsewhere. Secrecy masked much of the work at these sites until well into the 1980s, with serious consequences for public health, worker safety and the environment. Nuclear and chemical wastes caused severe contamination at Hanford and the other sites, and dealing with them has proved to be difficult and costly.
Major sites in the Cold War nuclear weapons production complex USDOD
Contamination at Hanford
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the U.S. had mass-produced some 70,000 nuclear bombs and warheads. Hanford made most of the plutonium used in those weapons. Workers irradiated uranium fuel in reactors, and then dissolved it in acid to extract the plutonium produced. This method, called reprocessing, generated 56 million gallons of liquid wastes laced with radioactive and chemical poisons.
Hanford's nine reactors were located along the Columbia River to provide a source of cooling water, and discharged radiation into the river throughout their lifetimes.
Fuel was sometimes reprocessed before its most highly radioactive isotopes had time to decay. Managers knowingly released toxic gases into the air, contaminating farmlands and grazing areas downwind. Some releases supported an effort to monitor Soviet nuclear progress. By tracking intentional emissions from Hanford, scientists learned better how to spot Soviet nuclear tests.
Liquid wastes from reprocessing were stored in underground tanks designed to last 25 years, assuming that a permanent disposal solution would be developed later. The U.S. Department of Energy, which now operates the weapons complex and its cleanup program, is still working on that solution.
Workers prepare to remove the core from a waste tank at Hanford in 2010. Hanford Site
Meanwhile, at least a million gallons of tank wastes have
leaked into the ground. This material, and the prospect of more to follow, threatens the Columbia River, a backbone of the Pacific Northwest's economy and ecology. Some groundwater is already contaminated. Estimates of when that plume will reach the river are uncertain.
Radioactive trash still litters parts of Hanford. Irradiated bodies of laboratory animals were buried there. The site houses radioactive debris ranging from medical wastes to propulsion reactors from decommissioned submarines and parts of the reactor that melted down at Three Mile Island. Some nuclear decision makers have called Hanford a "national sacrifice zone."
A Struggle for Accountability
In the mid-1980s, local residents grew suspicious about an apparent excess of illnesses and deaths in their community. Initially, strict secrecy—reinforced by the region's economic dependence on the Hanford site—made it hard for concerned citizens to get information.
Cold War-era billboard at Hanford reinforcing strict secrecy rulesUSDOE
Once the curtain of secrecy was partially lifted under pressure from area residents and journalists, public outrage prompted two major health effects studies that engendered fierce controversy. By the close of the decade, more than 3,500 "downwinders" had filed lawsuits related to illnesses they attributed to Hanford. A judge finally dismissed the case in 2016 after limited compensation to a handful of plaintiffs, leaving a bitter legacy of legal disputes and personal anguish.
Cleanup operations at Hanford began in 1989, but have been hamstrung by daunting technical challenges and management errors. The current estimate assumes work will continue through 2060 and cost more than $100 billion, beyond the approximately $50 billion already spent.
A key challenge is building a facility to extract the most toxic materials from the tank wastes and enclose them in glass logs to be sent elsewhere for permanent burial. Projected costs have ballooned to more than $17 billion, and the estimated completion date is now 2036. And with the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada mired in controversy, there is still no final resting place for these materials, which will be dangerous for tens of thousands of years.
Cleanup has progressed in other areas. The reactors have been shut down and enclosed in concrete and steel "cocoons" until their radioactivity decays further. Hanford's "B Reactor," the world's first large-scale nuclear reactor, is now part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park.
Buffer lands around the outer parts of the site, presumably clean enough for the purpose, have been converted to wildlife refuge areas. And in 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO), with a station located at Hanford, detected the first gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein. LIGO scientists chose Hanford for its remote location and minimal interference from human activity.
Lessons to Remember
The Department of Energy now considers many of its former nuclear weapons production sites to be fully cleaned up. Some remaining sites are involved in maintaining the current nuclear arsenal and could play roles producing new weapons. Others, like Hanford, are "legacy" sites where cleanup is the sole mission.
There is more oversight of the nuclear weapons complex today, but serious concerns remain. Notably, inspectors have found problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory dating back to 2011 related to handling of beryllium, a toxic material that can cause cancer and lung disease.
These issues at Hanford and other nuclear sites are reminders that nuclear weapons production is a risky process—and that in Washington state and elsewhere, legacies of the Cold War are still very much with us.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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