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.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, created by the Obama administration after it abandoned plans to establish a nuclear waste repository in Nevada, is expected to release its final report Jan. 26 on what to do with commercial “high level” nuclear waste—used, or “spent,” fuel—from nuclear reactors.
One of the many contentious issues the commission addressed is reprocessing, a series of chemical operations that separates plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste in spent fuel to be used again in nuclear reactors. The separated plutonium also could be used to make nuclear weapons.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has long opposed reprocessing spent fuel. Not only would reprocessing fail to reduce the volume of nuclear waste requiring permanent disposal, it would increase the risk of nuclear terrorism and proliferation, divert resources from a permanent disposal program, and cost significantly more than disposing of spent fuel directly.
UCS has called on the blue ribbon commission to retain language from its July interim report concluding that “no currently available or reasonably foreseeable” technologies for reprocessing spent fuel have the potential to “fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer.” But the science group also has asked the commission to drop the draft report’s recommendation to continue taxpayer-funded research and development on reprocessing and plutonium-based reactor fuels.
“Instead of throwing more good money after bad by continuing to fund failed reprocessing projects, the government should encourage research and development to improve the current fuel cycle’s efficiency, rebuff industry requests to weaken plutonium storage and transport security standards, and begin a technically sound, politically fair process to site a permanent geologic repository,” said Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist. “The tens of billions of dollars that electric utility ratepayers pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund should be spent only on the fund’s intended purpose—developing a geologic repository for direct disposal of spent fuel.”
The commission also is expected to recommend that the government establish a number of centralized interim high-level radioactive waste sites until a permanent underground geologic repository is built, a major objective of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and two industry trade groups, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition. UCS maintains that until a permanent geologic repository is built, spent nuclear fuel rods should remain on site at operating nuclear plants in hardened dry casks.
“It is not apparent that siting a consolidated interim storage facility would be any easier politically to achieve than siting a [permanent] geologic repository,” Lyman said in written comments to blue ribbon commission, “and efforts to site an interim storage facility could distract from the far more important goal of finding a repository site.”
“Spent fuel can be managed safely at reactor sites for decades as long as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires plant owners to minimize safety and security risks,” said Lyman. “They can do that by moving spent fuel from vulnerable, overcrowded wet pools to safer dry storage casks, and enhancing security measures to protect the dry casks from terrorist attacks.”
In its recommendations to the NRC in light of the Fukushima accident last March, UCS called on the agency to require plant owners to transfer used rods from spent fuel pools to dry casks as soon as the rods are cool enough to move. The NRC is currently conducting a study of this proposal. UCS also has called for the NRC to release more information to the public about classified studies that it has conducted since the 9/11 attacks on the dangers posed by densely packed spent fuel pools.
For more information, click here.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.