Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Excellent Article on Hanford

 

At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a Steady Drip of Toxic Trouble by Eric Nusbaum Feb 24 2012 http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/24/at-the-hanford-nuclear-reservation-a-steady-drip-of-toxic-trouble.html


[Excerpted]Hanford is the worst kind of mess: the kind that humanity is capable of making, but not capable of cleaning up. It was the home of the world’s first full-scale plutonium reactor and the epicenter of American nuclear production during the Cold War. Now the 586-square-mile campus is the subject of the largest environmental cleanup operation the United States government has ever undertaken....

The entire city of Los Angeles could fit rather comfortably within Hanford’s borders in southeastern Washington, but the human and environmental consequences of Hanford have spread beyond those borders, across Washington and Oregon. A decade ago a rash of radioactive tumbleweeds blew across the nearby plains. In the early 1960s, an irradiated whale was killed off the Oregon coast, having apparently been contaminated by nuclear waste flowing down the Columbia River...

...There are 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater under Hanford. Every day that water moves closer to the Columbia River. Not coincidentally, there are also 177 massive storage tanks on the site, each built to hold between 55,000 and more than 100,000 gallons of nuclear waste....

The plutonium production process began in the reactor cores, where uranium rods were overwhelmed with neutrons so that their chemical composition changed, creating, on each rod, a trace amount of plutonium. The rods were then dumped into giant pools of water, which caused some of the radiation to decay away, further isolating that plutonium. Next, the irradiated rods were hauled by train to a place called the T-Plant, where they were exposed to a chemical cocktail that caused them to dissolve and that allowed scientists to extract the plutonium. The gallons upon gallons of highly toxic chemicals left over from this process were stored in massive single-shell tanks. The plutonium was sent to a place called the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

When Hanford stopped producing plutonium for good in the late 1980s, it was left with more than 100,000 irradiated rods that had yet to be dissolved at the T-Plant. With nowhere to put them—Hanford’s last working reactor shut down rather abruptly after the Chernobyl incident—officials settled on the K Basins, a pair of million-gallon, water-filled tanks that were built in the 1950s. The K-Basins are located about 400 yards from the Columbia River....
By the 1980s they were already in decay—not built to last more than 20 years, and not built to store such high-level nuclear waste. It didn’t take long for crews to discover that the basins were leaking. Further, the rods inside were dissolving into the water, resulting in yet another variety of nuclear sludge

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