Hanford: Our River Runs Through It

PUREX facility at Hanford.

PUREX facility at Hanford.

On a rainy January night in Hood River, a packed audience listened with rapt attention as Dirk Dunning, a recently retired expert from the Oregon Department of Energy, gave a detailed perspective on some of Hanford’s most challenging problems. Dirk presented a history and a visual tour of parts of the Hanford Nuclear Site that have sparked national news stories and profound concerns about Hanford’s impact on the environment and the Columbia River.

Columbia Riverkeeper’s Conservation Director Dan Serres and Damon Motz-Storey of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility joined Dirk, offering information about protecting clean water and salmon habitat in the Columbia River at Hanford and efforts to end the Northwest’s reliance on nuclear power.

However, Dirk stole the show with his detailed, personal account of several key problem areas at Hanford, including:

  • The Plutonium Finishing Plant, where U.S. Department of Energy recently halted demolition activities due to worker exposures and the threat of spreading radioactive contamination.
  • The PUREX Tunnels, where the collapse of a tunnel containing highly radioactive waste in mid-2017 caused a shelter-in-place order on the Hanford site. Department of Energy is working to stabilize the tunnels by filling them with grout.
  • The Waste Treatment Plant, where Department of Energy is building a plant that would convert nuclear waste into glass logs—a project where costs have ballooned due to technical challenges and years of delays. Department of Energy is pushing towards a goal of converting at least some nuclear waste into glass logs by 2022.
  • The Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility, where Department of Energy stores highly radioactive cesium and strontium capsules in aging concrete pools. Washington Department of Ecology is currently accepting comments on plans to remove these capsules to dry storage (see more information below about how to comment). Dirk called the potential loss of cooling water around the capsules a “Chernobyl-scale” accident that “must be prevented.”

Dirk’s presentation included an unusually up-close view of some of Hanford’s problems, sharing a level of detail that surprised the audience. Through the discussion of specific problem areas at Hanford, a theme emerged: the loss of institutional memory poses a huge problem for cleanup efforts at Hanford. The decades-long production of plutonium for nuclear weapons created a vast, complicated nuclear and chemical waste problem. Yet, federal agencies—those primarily responsible for assessing how the pollution could behave over many years and impact the environment—are struggling to retain knowledge about how to address Hanford’s contamination.

To read more about this problem, check out our interview with Dirk in our latest newsletter.

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