The Free Market Can't Clean Up This Nuclear Mess

Written by Jim DiPeso on Friday November 11, 2011

Eli Lehrer ably defends the Department of Energy, the flawed and unloved agency whose name fell away from Rick Perry's lips when his neural network took an inopportune coffee break.

As Lehrer pointed out, about half of DOE's budget is allotted for watchdogging our nuclear arsenal and cleaning up "legacy wastes" left behind by production of fissile materials and nuclear weapons. One of DOE's cleanup projects is Hanford.

Not many people outside the Pacific Northwest know about Hanford, a 560-square-mile federal reservation in the sage steppe country of eastern Washington State.

Hanford is the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere. There's not a chance in hell that any entity except the federal government could oversee and carry out the cleanup, which—if funding holds—will be completed when today's toddlers are grandparents.

Hanford was the Manhattan Project site where physicists' theories were turned into industrial-scale plutonium production. Starting with the historic "B" reactor, nine reactors and five processing "canyons" to chemically extract plutonium from irradiated uranium were built at Hanford. Pu-239 production carried on until 1987, when the last operating reactor was shut down.

What's left behind to clean up?

-177 underground tanks containing vile combinations of radioactive and chemical wastes totaling 53 million gallons. At least one-third of the tanks have leaked an estimated 1 million gallons into the ground.

-Hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid wastes that entered the ground from cribs, ponds, injection wells, and French drains.

- Millions of tons of solid wastes that ended up in pits, trenches, and dumps.

-Leaking plumes from the tanks and the liquid wastes contain an all-star team of radioactive and chemical hazards—strontium-90, technetium-99, and carbon tetrachloride, to name a few. Down the gradient lies the Columbia River, the biggest river in the West.

What's being done?

DOE is building capacity to pump and treat 150 million gallons of contaminated groundwater per month. Contaminated soil and cleanup debris will go into an onsite landfill the size of 52 football fields, which now holds 11 million tons and counting of low-level wastes. Eventually, reactor buildings and support facilities will be demolished.

The centerpiece of the cleanup is construction of a vitrification plant that will take the hellish tank wastes and imprison them in glass logs for eventual burial, perhaps at Yucca Mountain, perhaps somewhere else. Cost of the "vit" plant is $12.2 billion and likely to go up. No one can say for sure whether the vit plant will work because remediation on this scale has never been tried.

An unresolved question is the fate of the 177 tanks after they've been emptied. Leave them in place and monitor them for all eternity, or chop them up for disposal? Removing the tanks and ancillary structures would create a mound of waste totaling a billion cubic feet—enough to fill the New Orleans Superdome eight times over.

Estimated cost of emptying the tanks, vitrifying the wastes, and remediating the tank farms ranges from $34 billion to $261 billion. Where the final number falls depends on how the public and decision-makers answer the central question: how clean is clean enough?

DOE's oversight of the mammoth cleanup job has been bedeviled by ongoing controversy over its competence. Some critics have suggested taking DOE off the job and turning the mess over to a federal corporation chartered for the sole purpose of carrying out the cleanup.

No one knowledgeable about Hanford, however, has seriously suggested turning the job over to a non-federal actor. No other entities could handle it, nor should they even if they could. For more than four decades, Hanford was a critical defense facility, defense is inarguably a federal duty, and the cleanup of the wastes that came with defense production is a federal responsibility.