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Hanford cleanup still looms large

Jan. 22, 2011

Twenty-three local guests of the Hood River Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs breakfast meeting on Jan. 18 served as the first public audience for a new film under construction about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation site.

"The Hanford Story," a grim 15-minute film, still being completed by the U.S. Department of Energy, summarizes the history and current cleanup status of the former U.S. government-run plutonium processing facility.

The film was presented by DOE spokesperson Nick Ceto and viewed with an intense silence by the group. Ceto followed up with a question-and-answer period for attendees.

"It seems like an impossible task," said Hood River landscape photographer Peter Marbach, following the presentation.

That sentiment helped to summarize the overwhelming data and figures presented to the group on the mountains of hazardous materials and millions of gallons of groundwater cleanup left behind at the facility.

"It is scary to see that there is still serious contamination there and that the cleanup hinges on continued funding," said Hood River attorney Marc Geller, an attendee at the meeting.

Hanford sits on the Columbia approximately 170 miles upriver from Hood River and covers an area of 586 square miles - "large enough to fit the entire city of Los Angeles into," noted Ceto.

The government facility was developed to produce and store fissile materials for use in nuclear bombs, including the plutonium used in the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. Production continued on site into the late 1980s.

Ceto noted that the world's largest environmental cleanup project is now under way at the site where tons of radioactive materials were processed using river water and toxic heavy metals.

Ceto also acknowledged that in the thinking of the time, destructive and long-term environmental and human health impacts were secondary to the development of nuclear defense capability.

With the signing of the "Tri-party Agreement" of 1989, between the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology, cleanup priorities, responsibilities and budgets for the project were finally established.

Even with a current annual operation budget of about $2 billion, the formerly top-secret campus continues to pose daunting, environmental cleanup challenges with a decades-long projection for completion.

Deadly contamination, from processing waste and on-site dumping and storage of radioactive materials and heavy metals, is spread throughout the site's soil, decommissioned buildings, groundwater and remaining underground storage tanks.

Current focus for the DOE's work, employing 425 federal employees and 12,000 contractor and subcontractor workers, is to reduce threats to the Columbia River from chromium other heavy metals and radioactive material carried in groundwater; and to shrink the "footprint" of other contamination cleanup zones within the larger reservation site.

"It's good to hear that the river is the first and foremost effort," said Geller, "and that our best and brightest scientific minds are working on the problem. But, I think we are mostly in the position of crossing our fingers and hoping it is not too late."

The DOE received an additional $2 billion in Recovery Act funding to spend between April 2009 and October 2011, which "has sped up some aspects of the cleanup project," reported Ceto.

Specifically, additional groundwater pump and treat systems have been completed earlier than planned. Additional pump units will be completed soon.

The DOE River Corridor Cleanup Project is focused on cleanup efforts within the 220 square miles of Columbia River frontage contamination zones. Some Hanford nuclear reactors were previously sited within 400 yards of the river.

The current work in the river frontage zone continues ongoing soil and facility removal; lined containment for high-level contaminant materials and improved prevention of continued migration of contaminated groundwater into the river.

In the long run, all of the facilities and structures, and much of the soil and water beneath the sites which were associated with Hanford's defense mission, must be deactivated, decommissioned, decontaminated, demolished and/or securely sequestered.

According to Ceto, there is currently no permanent solution to the problem of long-term, safe storage of radioactive materials. Even with the planned Hanford vitrification plant (a processing plant which will fuse radioactive material with glass), there is no secured storage method or location for the end product.

Contrarily, a long list of year 2010 accomplishments were released to the press by the DOE, including the decontamination, demolition and loading out of 142 buildings plus the remediation of 149 waste sites and waste burial grounds.

The summary also lists 600 million gallons of groundwater as treated and five million tons of hazardous waste as moved from the riverfront to the newly created lined disposal facility on-site.

These massive numbers, longtime frames and disturbing images are typical of the data presented in the film. Yet, even with continued full funding of the project, a successful cleanup of the site still remains decades away. Long-term safe storage remains a yet unsolved - and extremely grave - dilemma.

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