Hanford clean-up: long, expensive job

Ginger Wireman, who works in communications and outreach for the Department of Ecology, points out a spot on a Hanford containment bunker that has become a nesting habitat for bats.

Photo by Laura Gjovaag
Ginger Wireman, who works in communications and outreach for the Department of Ecology, points out a spot on a Hanford containment bunker that has become a nesting habitat for bats.



— The clean-up of Hanford has accomplished a lot since it was started in the 1990s, but the entire project may take more than 70 years and $112 billion to complete.

Ginger Wireman, a communications and outreach specialist with the Department of Ecology, spoke Monday to the Sunnyside Noon Rotary Club about how Hanford came to be so contaminated and why it is taking so long to clean up.

The site was built in complete secrecy in about 13 months to work on the atomic bomb, and until 1987 it continued to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. Safety standards were not perfect, with some sites contaminated due to equipment simply being dumped in trenches when it became radioactive.

The biggest problem is the tanks, which Wireman said are estimated to contain a volume of radioactive sludge about the size of the Kingdome, around 56 million gallons of waste.

She said 177 tanks, 149 of them single-shelled, contain a thick liquid that is being pumped out and converted into stable, but still radioactive, glass.

If the process is allowed to be completed, the glass would be stored at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, where it will decay to safe levels over the next few centuries.

But even getting rid of all the sludge in the tanks won’t make Hanford 100 percent safe.

“There are places that will be contaminated for 2,000 years,” Wireman said. “It can be hard to plan for 30 years, as we see with streets and highways today. But to plan for 50, 100 or 1,000 years, that’s kind of crazy.”

In the meantime, the goal at Hanford is to clean as much of the contamination as possible and make the area safe for future generations.

Hanford is big. There are 2,400 waste sites and about 72 square miles of contaminated groundwater. But in the past 30 years the area has seen vast improvements.

It’s now safe to walk along the Columbia River on the site, Wireman said, although it’s not legal.

A high priority has been protecting the Columbia River’s water, and constant testing shows the river water is safe.

Wireman said the clean-up has come a long way since Casey Ruud blew the whistle on the problem in 1987, leading to the shutdown of the weapons facility and the beginning of the largest clean-up effort the United States has ever faced.

One of the biggest accomplishments is that the problem is now understood, which allows those in charge of cleaning it up to plan, Wireman said.

When Ruud first blew the whistle on the problems at Hanford, a lot of it was underestimated. Now the agencies in charge of clean-up have a good idea what they are facing.

She said the timelines on the clean-up have slipped a bit since the agreement to clean up Hanford was signed, but the process continues, and will continue for the length of many of the lives of people in her audience.

Wireman said the two high school students at the Rotary meeting may live to see it finished.



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