Engineers around the world have done a great job developing nuclear technologies to serve mankind’s many endeavors: medical devices, power generators, naval propulsion systems, or the most formidable weapons ever built, so formidable that they could largely wipe out mankind and its many endeavors.
However, engineers haven’t figured out yet what to do with the highly radioactive and toxic materials nuclear technologies leave behind. They leak through corroded containers, contaminate soil, water, and air, and after decades, we try to deal with them somehow, but mainly we’re shuffling that problem to the next generation. The enormous sums coming due over time were never included in the original costs. We’re not even talking about an accident, like Fukushima, whose costs will likely reach $1 trillion, but about maintenance and cleanup.
For example, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, the largest, most daunting environmental cleanup project in the US. More than 11,000 people work on it. Nine relatively small reactors on that property produced plutonium, starting in 1943 through the Cold War. In 1987, the last reactor was shut down. What remains are various structures, such as the evocatively named “Plutonium Finishing Plant” (aerial photo: red “X” marks denote sections to be demolished) or the “Plutonium Vault Complex” that stored plutonium for nuclear weapons (photo of corridor).
Buried underground are 177 tanks containing 56 million gallons of highly radioactive and toxic waste. The 31 oldest tanks, made of a single layer of now rust-perforated carbon steel, have been leaking highly radioactive and toxic sludge into the ground for decades.
Hence the “Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant,” a radiochemical processing facility. In its annual report to Congress, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which has jurisdiction over the “defense nuclear facilities” of the Department of Energy (DOE), describes the task at Hanford:
After these wastes are retrieved from the tanks, the plant will chemically separate the waste into two streams of differing radioactive hazard and solidify them into glass in stainless steel canisters. The low-radioactivity glass will be disposed of onsite, while the high-level waste glass will be shipped offsite for permanent disposal once a repository is available.
Turns out, almost none of it, according to the report, can be done safely or at all. And that “repository?” It doesn’t exist. Despite decades of trying, the US has not been able to come up with one.
In 1989, the DOE inked a Tri-Party Agreement with the EPA and Washington State to clean up the site. It would require the construction of a special facility. In 1990, the DOE paid for two sets of plans. Then nothing. People got promoted out of there, did things, or retired. A decade passed. In 2001, construction finally began.
Another decade passed. In 2010, with technical challenges galore, a guy named Walter Tamosaitis, a former engineering manager at the site, sent the Board a letter, claiming that he “was removed from the project because he identified technical issues that could affect safety.” An investigation followed. Later, the Board conceded that Hanford had “a flawed safety culture” that was hindering “the identification and resolution of technical and safety issues.”
By that time, with the plant far from finished, the price tag had ballooned to $12.2 billion. The design and construction contractor, Bechtel National, a unit of the Bechtel Corporation, was getting rich off this project and wouldn’t mind if it dragged on forever. CEOs come and go, but the project’s reliable revenue stream would always be there.
Now, almost 25 years after the original agreement, the price has ballooned further, but the DOE no longer has an estimate, nor does it have any idea as to when the plant will be finished. If ever. Because it has some, let’s say, issues. As the report in bland bureaucratese points out: “Although this is a one-of-a-kind project with novel technology that requires significant research and development, it is being designed concurrent with construction. As a result….”
As a result of starting to build the dang thing before they solved the major technical problems, they now have a mess on their hands; and pending a solution to “the remaining technical issues,” explained DOE spokeswoman, Aoife McCarthy, construction has now stopped.
The Board raised “a serious question as to whether this plant is going to work at all,” said Senate Energy Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. The report lists design problems that could lead to mechanical breakdowns, chemical explosions, and nuclear reactions.
But leaving the highly radioactive and toxic sludge in the underground tanks would be dangerous as well. The older single-shell tanks are leaking. And as the report explains, many of the “double-shell tanks currently have enough flammable gas retained in the waste that, if released in the tank headspace, could create a flammable atmosphere.” And blow up.
“These are the questions that should have been resolved at the front end,” groaned Senator Wyden.
Precisely the quandary not just of Hanford but of the entire nuclear age! We’ve figured out the first part. But we haven’t figured out how to deal with the second part, radioactive waste. Entire careers have been and will be made at Hanford in decommissioning the site and removing its structures, reactors, and contaminated materials. Many more careers will be made dealing with the highly radioactive and toxic sludge. It will eat up fortunes for generations.
Catastrophic nuclear accidents, like Chernobyl or Fukushima, are very rare, we’re told incessantly. But when they occur, they’re costly. So costly that the French government, when it came up with estimates, kept them secret. But the report was leaked. Read…. Potential Cost Of A Nuclear Accident? So High It’s A Secret!