Hanford Site: Radiation Levels High, Plant Progress Slow

It’s not as much in vogue as it was in the early ’90s, but governments everywhere continue to struggle with the issue of nuclear waste disposal. When the Simpsons first debuted, it seemed natural to lampoon nuclear power, by revealing the irresponsible and untrained Homer as a nuclear engineer at a plant with laughable safety and environmental standards.

Nuclear safety came back into the public eye with the Fukushima disaster last year, but the challenge of nuclear waste disposal doesn’t get nearly the same press it once did. Yet while it’s slipped somewhat from our collective unconscious, the actual stuff hasn’t gone anywhere. That’s the thing about nuclear waste: it sticks around.

At the Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington, a 10-year project to create a functioning treatment plant has already tripled its expected budget, and at $12.3 billion so far, the costs are still continuing to grow. According to USA Today, the project is both the most costly and the most complicated environmental cleanup ever attempted.

The plant was originally supposed to be in operation last year, but it’s already been delayed to 2019, and could easily take years more, and who knows how many more billions of dollars beyond that. Engineers interviewed in the story spoke of inherent design problems and official concerns that an uncontrolled nuclear reaction could occur inside the plant. There is no less than 56 million gallons of nuclear waste waiting to be processed, but one senior scientist says they’re still trying to move forwards with their “failed design.”

NPR covered a leaked report that revealed radiation levels in the area are higher than previously believed. The nuclear sludge is currently being stored in old underground tanks that were never intended to be a permanent solution. If they begin to leak and get into ground water, the area affected could be huge. Washington Governor Chris Gregoire is urging the department of energy to hurry up with this already far-delayed project. “The Columbia River is at stake, all of that area and its vitality.”

The sad thing is this incredible quantity of nuclear waste is not even the by-product of useful energy, but the massive nuclear stockpiles produced by the US throughout the Cold War. Hanford is where Manhattan Project scientists first initiated plutonium production for some of the first atomic bombs, including “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki (“Little Boy”, dropped on Hiroshima, was a simpler uranium-235 bomb). It remained open as a plutonium production site until 1968.

At its height, the US had an arsenal of some 60, 000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the world thousands of times over. Subsequent treaty agreements saw both the US and former Soviet Union begin to downsize their nuclear arsenals. Meanwhile, however, the overwhelming quantities of waste remain.

More time, money, and research will be needed, it seems, to erase this very messy mistake.

Related stories:

First Look Inside Nuclear Reactor

Post-Fukushima: Nuclear Policies in Flux Around the World

Water is Our Life Source: Opposing the Transport of Nuclear Waste Through the Great Lakes

Photo credit: United States Department of Energy.


Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

The least they could do is get some new tanks to replace the old ones that most likely are already leaking.

Myron Scott
Myron Scott5 years ago

Living in Portland a few years ago, I was exploring the area east of Grand Coulee, rich in history, fascinating geology and migratory birds; but I had to pass by Hanford to get where I wanted to go. The area was as full of propagandistic images of Hanford and the Columbia River Dams as Winston Smith's world was full of images of Big Brother, as I recall. I was nervous as hell. Couldn't get out of there fast enough.

Kimberlee W.
Kimberlee W5 years ago

Thank you Hartson, that was really informative and pretty much confirms the way I believed things worked alll along.

Hartson Doak
Hartson Doak5 years ago

I worked in the Nuclear Power Construction Industry during the 1st wave of power plant construction. Take Seabrook Nuclear Power plant in Seabrook, NH for instance. It was to be a two reactor site built for $36 million. When the utility went bankrupt from the $360 million dollar bill for this ONE incomplete reactor, it became the second utility to do so. The cost over runs were rampant. The objective was not to finish building these power plants but to milk this cash cow for all that you could get out of it. These were contracted for time and materials with no accountability for error. If you built it wrong, you got to rebuild it and get paid for both jobs. Over staff and over charge for labor that was never done. The NRC was ok with that. I got on the shit list with my company. I was making them build this ticking bomb the way they were supposed to.
Now the cost over runs at Hanaford are to be expected. This is the same agency that built this mess and is tasked to clean up the mess. Do you think that they have changed any of the way they have run things. There is still no accountability.

Lynn C.
Lynn C5 years ago

I guess most of you know we're facing not only starvation because of ecological abuses, but disregard of Murphy's law. "If something can go wrong - it will."
How do you prepare for nuclear fall out? Maybe Care2 could post of few articles on something that looks to be inevitable.

Nicole Weber
Nicole W5 years ago


Nicole Weber
Nicole W5 years ago


Linda T.
Linda T5 years ago

The neclear waste has always been a hugh problem that our country has been unwilling or unable to solve, and then we built nuclear power plants, all over the country to build up more nuclear waste that never moves and is stored unsafely and continues to grow larger.

Ron Berti
Ron B5 years ago

Hanford is an ugly blight on the Pacific Northwest. Radioactive gunk has already leaked through the ground water in and around Hanford. Radioactivity has been recorded in the Columbia River.

There are people here in Portland and elsewhere along the Columbia Gorge who will not swim in the river or eat fish from it's waters, myself included. The risks may be low, but why take a chance? As they say, there is no such thing as a safe dosage of radiation. God only knows what the planet might be getting from Fukushima and other sources.

Whatever you do, live smart and always question authority on virtually everything.

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons5 years ago

56 million gallons of nuclear sludge just laying there in rusty underground storage tanks. You can pretty much guarantee that a steel storage tank underground all those years is already leaking.