The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the largest nuclear waste repository in the Western hemisphere. It is located north of Richland, Washington over the Oregon border and just 5 miles from the Columbia River. Originally established during WWII as part of the Manhattan Project, the Hanford Site covers almost 600 square miles, and has seen 50,000 workers pass through its premises. Officially decommissioned in the 1960s, with the final reactors terminated in 1971, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) took control of the site in 1977. However, during its period of activity, it required large volumes of water from the nearby river to cool its reactors, and this water was eventually returned to the Columbia. This is among the major environmental concerns surrounding this former reactor site. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is estimated that some 475 billion gallons of contaminated water were returned to the Columbia River basin.
The site has been in the news recently because six of its underground storage tanks are leaking, and its proximity to the both the Columbia River and farmland have people worried. In total, there are more than 150 storage tanks, and those concerned speculate that either future leakage is inevitable, or that in reality there are more faulty tanks than originally reported. These anxieties may not be too far off as one company that was tasked with cleanup of the area has failed to do so. Bechtel National Inc. was awarded a contract in 2000 for cleanup of the site after three failed attempts by other companies linked to the Energy Department. The goal of the Bechtel project was establishing a waste treatment and immobilization plant. Initial projected total costs for the project were $4 billion, but that figure has ballooned to over $13 billion in just a matter of years. The plant was originally set to open in 2011, but that timeline has been pushed back to 2019. The plant was also supposed to vitrify (encase in glass) the 53 million gallons of toxic waste at the site, something that has not yet taken place.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee recently made several trips to Hanford to work with collaborators on fixing the delays. An official from his project review team announced that the plant could be leaking as much as 1,000 gallons a year. Further compounding the problem is federal sequestration. The Governor is worried that funding could be cut off for the cleanup of what he says should be a national priority.
Nuclear energy provides roughly 6% of the world’s energy (13% of its electricity), and the technology was first tapped for electricity in the early 1950s. While nuclear power has been around for a long time, and in many cases has been very safe and efficient, it has also had its notable negative headlines. While it will continue to be a major player in the world’s energy needs for the foreseeable future, there has to be more thought given to the storage and disposal of its waste production. Coming up with solutions retroactively is not an effective strategy for thinking outside the box when it comes to energy production, storage and disposal.