Nuclear Waste Lasts Long

Hanford’s nuclear waste is a great threat to the Pacific Northwest region of the USA.

Near Tri-Cities in the state of Washington, where the Columbia River meets the Snake River, is a relic of the past too dangerous for anyone to touch. Once a peaceful town, inhabited by the Wanapum and others, Hanford was turned into a restricted factory that would produce the deadliest weapon ever used by humans. Known as the Hanford Site, it produced plutonium that was used in Fat Man, a Nagasaki-demolisher.

Since its establishment in 1943, the Hanford Site not only played a significant role in ending the Second World War, but continued well into the 80’s during the Cold War era. On top of producing plutonium, the Site produced electricity using the Columbia River. Until its official shut down in 1987, many were unaware of the environmental impacts it brought about in Eastern Washington, which is a problem that must be dealt with beyond today. Plutonium-239 has a half life of 24,000 years.

Since the shut down, it is true that the Site has worked hard to clean up the nuclear mess. They have collaborated with local environmentalists, Native Americans, and former and nearby residents to look for most reasonable solutions in making the area habitable again — well, that is the goal. For over thirty years, the process of cleaning up has been a constant center of altercation in the area. However, some of the local voices went unnoticed, and were far from being considered in the federal government’s clean-up plan. Recently, Columbia Riverkeeper, “a team of community organizers, environmental lawyers, and scientists fighting for clean water,” released a report called “Competing Visions for the Future of Hanford.” The report addresses a more recent conflict between the Department of Energy (DOE) and locals like Columbia Riverkeeper.

The Comprehensive Land Use Plan by the DOE proposes that 530,000 gallons of mostly empty but not completely empty tanks be loaded with concrete and left buried underground. Why is this an issue? As I said, the tanks are not completely empty. The tanks, which used to contain toxic chemicals and nuclear waste, pose serious environmental and health threats, even with that little of what is left. It is possible that these effects not only stay local within the Tri-Cities area, but expand to all parts of Washington, Oregon, and other nearby states via groundwater, rivers, and other bodies of water. In fact, leaks from the Site have been consistently detected over the years, and it is widely speculated among the locals and Pacific-Northwest residents that the leaks have already spread to more populous areas such as the Greater-Seattle area and the Spokane area. Furthermore, the DOE’s projected safety measure in accordance with the concrete plan is simply to set up fences and signs around the burial Site and hope nobody dares to trespass and be exposed to “higher-than-average” radiation. What is the reason behind this rather inconsiderate Plan? Does the government not care about the dangers? Simply put, the government does care — but only so much.

The DOE’s plan only has to meet very low standards. The Plan does not have to go over the industrial standards in its clean up. Unfortunately, the industrial standards are far more ineffective and minimal than what people want and need. Groups like Columbia Riverkeeper want the Plan amended to suit the local needs better. One of the constituent parts of the Plan that they want to talk more about is this question of appropriate standards and criteria in cleaning up the nuclear mess with maximum efficiency.

As a resident of the state of Washington, I am very concerned about the Site and its impacts on not only Tri-Cities locals, but people around me as well. I agree with environmentalists that the federal government must listen and provide what the people want. No, what the people need. When the firsthand victims of the most audacious project in human history are suffering, the government of and for the people has responsibility of carrying out its purpose. I am not arguing that the government has not done anything in protecting its citizens. However, I am arguing that they could and should do more to ensure the safety of the citizens. For the Hanford Site issue, the solution seems quite clear for me. Clean up, don’t hide.