Columbia Riverkeeper Urges Action, Caution at Problem-Plagued Hanford Site

Weighing In on Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility (WESF)

By Dan Serres, Conservation Director

PUREX Facility at Hanford, Source of 50% of the U.S.’ Weapons Plutonium. Photo by Dan Serres.

PUREX Facility at Hanford, Source of 50% of the U.S.’ Weapons Plutonium. Photo by Dan Serres.

In late January, Columbia Riverkeeper and our members urged the U.S. Department of Energy to address highly radioactive cesium and strontium capsules stored in the Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility (WESF) at Hanford. WESF contains huge quantities of radioactive material stored in aging concrete basins. The Oregon Department of Energy and others have warned that high radiation levels may undermine the integrity of the concrete at WESF. According to the Oregon Department of Energy, removal of capsules to dry storage should be “a top Hanford priority.” A loss of cooling water at WESF could result in a major radioactive release into the environment, endangering workers, the environment, and future generations.

You can read Riverkeeper’s comments here. We urge Department of Energy to remove the capsules earlier than the currently scheduled date of 2025. Additionally, we asked members to share their own thoughts about why this cleanup proposal is so important.


Here are a few highlights from the comments you added:


“Improving Hanford’s weak storage of toxic nuclear waste by changing to dry cask storage ought to be the least we can do, to better safeguard those using and living along our wonderful Columbia River.”
Ted, Washington


“I am concerned that this nuclear waste poses a threat to the environment and to people because of the potential instability of wet storage. Please remedy this problem quickly to protect our local area, wildlife, and citizens.”
-Jessica, Oregon


“Capsules from WESF are in danger of releasing large quantities of radiation if water is drained from the system. We live near the Columbia River and such a leak would be catastrophic for our health & wellbeing.”
-Sandy, Washington

“Remove cesium and strontium capsules at WESF quickly and safely. Study the impact of high radiation levels on the concrete at WESF to provide important data that can be used to evaluate risks at other radioactive storage basins.”
Meryl, Maine

“It is past time to deal with dangerous nuclear waste. This is a good first action towards a safe solution.”
Maurine, Oregon

“Concrete decays over time, becoming more porous and cracking. We live in an unstable world of shifting lands and dynamic storms. Nothing ever remains exactly as it used to be for eternity. To the contrary, change is a fluid part of existence. I’m glad you are getting the capsules out of the water and into new dry storage.”
Marcia, Washington

“The problems of long-term storage of nuclear waste have never been solved. The deteriorating cement is another problem that will make it difficult to keep the radioactive material safely contained. I live near the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant which is also having problems with deteriorating cement, and I am sure I am not the only one living near a facility with this problem. These issues need to be studied and corrected and not ignored. Too many people have been exposed to the products of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons…”
-Carole, Massachusetts

Thank you to the hundreds of Riverkeeper members who supported our call for addressing the risks at WESF. In coming months, we will monitor Department of Energy’s progress towards building and operating a Capsule Storage Area—the shortest, surest path to reducing the risks posed by WESF’s highly radioactive contents.


Spreading The Word About Spreading Contamination

In an effort to draw attention to Hanford’s growing contamination problem, Columbia Riverkeeper joined Hanford Challenge’s Tom Carpenter and Liz Mattson on KBOO’s “Locus Focus,” hosted by Barbara Bernstein. We discussed a wide range of Hanford issues and explained how federal and state agencies should address worker safety and protection of the environment. You can listen to the February 19, 2018, show here.
The show was inspired by recent contamination events at Hanford. In February, state and federal agencies released more information about risks at Hanford. Alarmingly, contamination spreading from demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant created widespread concern about U.S. Department of Energy’s approach to the cleanup effort. Washington’s Department of Health issued a sharply worded letter calling for U.S. Department of Energy to halt work at the Plutonium Finishing Plant and develop better control measures after contamination was found more than 10 miles from the demolition site. The Department of Health warned, “if work resumes without better controls, a risk to the public may develop.”

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy. July 2017.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy. July 2017.

Shortly following the letter, a hard-hitting King 5 story explained how workers have been exposed to plutonium during cleanup at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, with some inhaling or ingesting the highly dangerous radionuclide. Susannah Frame’s reporting highlights how a rush to meet contract deadlines may have contributed to workers being exposed to plutonium.


Budgeting For Catastrophe

Adding to Hanford’s problems, President Trump’s budget proposes a massive cut to Hanford cleanup—over $230 million—at a time when Hanford’s aging infrastructure, leaking tanks, and technical challenges require urgent attention. In 2017, the Hanford Advisory Board urged the Department of Energy to seek robust funding for Hanford, a sharp contrast to the deep budget cuts proposed by President Trump’s budget.

The presidential budget drew sharp criticism from a bipartisan set of lawmakers who predicted that deep cuts in the cleanup effort would add to Hanford’s contamination woes. Senator Patty Murray told the Tri-City Herald, “The president’s proposed cuts to Hanford cleanup are extremely disappointing, especially in the wake of recent events highlighting the hazards that must still be addressed and the risks this cleanup poses to workers, the public and the environment.” The Tri-City Herald editorialized against the proposed cuts, stating, “Every budget cycle, we wonder how much Congressional funding will go toward Hanford cleanup. The federal government created this dangerous, radioactive site, and it has a moral and legal obligation to make it safe.”

Like the Tri-City Herald, residents of the Northwest who live downstream from the Hanford site will be urging our federal representatives to fully fund the government’s obligation to Hanford cleanup. Congress can—and should—dismiss the President’s suggestion to shortchange Hanford cleanup.


Stay Connected With Us in 2018

Stay connected with us at Columbia Riverkeeper as we press for long-term solutions to protect the Columbia River from Hanford’s nuclear pollution. U.S. Department of Energy recently announced a public comment opportunity for evaluating cleanup at the site of collapsed tunnels near the PUREX facility, the source of roughly half of the plutonium for nuclear weapons in the United States. We will update our members soon with more information on how to comment on this important issue.


1 Comment

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One Response to “Columbia Riverkeeper Urges Action, Caution at Problem-Plagued Hanford Site”

  1. Sharon Fasnacht says:

    I definitely want to hear more information on how to comment on this important issue.