23 January 2011

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation becomes an American Pop-Icon Amusement Park?

                                       The abandoned city of Pripyat, Russia, near Chernobyl
By Dvija Michael Bertish

It’s already happening elsewhere in the world, something that makes a lot of environmentally conscious folks scratch their heads in confusion – Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, has become a tourist attraction. For $100-$185, people can book private tours or participate in group tours of the Chernobyl disaster site under the guise of ecological curiosity. School groups are welcome!

Twenty-three years after the disaster, the area is uninhabitable, surface water is highly radioactive, and the surrounding forests are still red with radiation sickness. The devastating wildfires in Russia last summer choked Moscow with thick bellowing smoke, and fears were raised that the fire would spread radioactive particulates from the Chernobyl site. Somehow, all of this attracts tourists who want to see the devastation first hand. The nuclear accident at Chernobyl killed tens of thousands, wiped out the City of Pripyat where Chernobyl workers lived, and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Even the local dairy cows produce radioactive milk.

Just before the Chernobyl disaster, the city of Pripyat built a brand new amusement park that now stands desolate amidst the graveyard of broken glass and buildings being overtaken by deformed trees. Tour guides bring visitors to the amusement park, where small patches of grass make Geiger counters go crazy and the tourists are whisked away because the area is suddenly declared to be unclean and unsafe for human occupation by mere tour guides.

At the end of the Chernobyl tour, each visitor had to be scanned for radiation, standing between two pieces of metal with hands placed on the sides of a sensor machine. Remember, this area was once a thriving city, with a nuclear power plant nearby.

This real-life situation at Chernobyl exemplifies what could happen at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and the nearby city of Richland, Washington.

How? If the vitrification plant for High-Level Nuclear Waste has an explosion, or if the High-Level Waste tanks have a major release.

Unthinkable? No. Our federal Energy Department (USDOE) is now designing that plant to accommodate “small” explosions, rather than do the engineering and safety testing to ensure explosions do not occur. The Seattle Times’ front page article (Jan 23, 2011) provides details of how USDOE is proceeding despite concerns raised by numerous outside experts and whistleblowers. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2014001657_hanford23m.html

Imagine Disneyland with its brightly painted facades, candy wrappers, flowering baskets, and the never ending score of ‘It’s a Small World’ emitted from loudspeakers. It’s a fantasy land, with costumed attendants busily sweeping up any semblance of refuse from pristine sidewalks, and lines of smitten children taking turns to grab a hug from Mickey Mouse. Disneyland is an American ideal of adventurous fun. No offense to Walt, but it appears his fantasy has been usurped and warped by the US Department of Energy (DOE). Not to add salt to a wound, but the consumer advocacy group Center for Environmental Health tested Disney-themed bags sold at Safeway grocery stores, and found some bags had lead levels as much as 17 times above the federal limits for children's products [Tampa Tribune, Jan 12, 2011]. So yes, even the trusted Disney brand can poison children.

At various public meetings, DOE officials have offered that Hanford will become a national park, open to picnicking and tent camping directly over the footprint of nuclear reactor cores. Of course, DOE contends that the area is clean and has been made safe for the future public landmark on the pristine shores of the Columbia River, despite a vast radioactive plume that is already leaking into the River, where fish in the Hanford Reach are reversing sexes and may become unable to reproduce. DOE officials explain that decommissioned facilities should be made available for tours and museums, the surrounding lands will be made available for industrial redevelopment and maybe agriculture – never mind the 43 miles of unlined trenches leaching Hanford’s discarded toxic trash into the soil and groundwater. And the famous half-baked vitrification plant (that is supposed to magically transform millions of gallons of leaking nuclear sludge from ruptured storage tanks into storable glass logs) is not only years behind schedule and triple the budget at more than $12 billion and rising, but is also physically unstable and may be prone to explosions of radioactive gas.

What a lovely and charming premise for Richland property owners and residents. DOE may as well propose a giant fairy castle to be built at the entrance to Hanford, with fireworks shows going off nightly to the cheering hoards, and hungry kids munching on pink cotton candy. Yes America, the federal government has plans to giftwrap Hanford and hand it back to us as an amusement park where the deer and the antelope play.

In December 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that a rabbit on the 586 square mile Hanford Site was dumping radioactive poop after having consumed radioactive water that leached from some unidentified nuclear waste heap -- not to mention radioactive mice, tumbleweeds, pocket gophers, pigeons, desert termites, harvester ants, toads, swallows, snakes, badgers, fruit flies, and mud-dauber wasps. Wall Street Journal, Dec. 23, 2010 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704694004576019280235026892.html

Contractors found the answer was to shoot the rabbit (as if there was only one rabbit) with a pellet gun and call it good. Maybe they will stuff the corpse, give it a bow-tie and a carrot in its pocket, and put a neon sign over it that reads “The Real Bugs Bunny,” no offense Warner Brothers.

Back to the Hanford Vitrification Plant

At countless public meetings, citizens have repeatedly raised doubts as to whether the vitrification plant will really work. Construction began years before the design was ever completed, and fledgling equipment and processing hasn’t even been tested. Meanwhile, the federal government allows the leaking storage tanks to continue leaking without a backup plan in case the vitrification plant fails, and the radicactive waste has entered the soil and groundwater, which flows to the River. Federal officials have stated publicly that it would be impossible to remove all of the toxic waste from the soil and groundwater, that a cleanup project of this magnitude has never been attempted, and the snail’s pace cleanup is undertaken to protect worker safety and burdensome financial constraints.

With the local flora and fauna already spreading radioactive nuetrons at Hanford, how long would it be before Richland’s sewage facilities introduce volumes of radioactive waste into the environment caused by exposure to Hanford? After all, the city of Richland’s drinking water source is the Columbia River, downstream from the Hanford facility, and radioactive isotopes are measurable in shoreline seeps entering the River at levels well beyond drinking water standards. DOE’s Environmental Impact Analysis projects widespread radioactive contamination throughout the geographic region for thousands of years, and yet the leaking tanks, one of the primary sources of contamination at the site, still sit there. For how long? USDOE convinced Washington State to agree to let it delay emptying the leaky Single Shell Tanks by 22 years – until the year 2040. Until emptied, the contamination under the tanks can’t be cleaned up… but, of course, USDOE does not plan to clean that up. It will be up to us as active citizens to force them to empty the tanks faster, cleanup the leaks and the wastes in those 43 miles of unlined ditches.

On January 22, 2011, the Seattle Times published a duet of articles regarding the subject of the vitrification plant at Hanford:

Big cleanup questions still loom at Hanford http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2014001657_hanford23m.html

Will giant mixers keep nuclear waste stable? http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2014001657_hanford23m.html

The Seattle Times reports: “But parts of the [vitrification] plant still face risks of bursting into flames, exploding or triggering uncontrolled nuclear-chain reactions, according to project documents, interviews and formal critiques by scientists at other federal agencies…The government's own tests show that equipment may fail or pipes may clog in areas of the plant so hot with nuclear waste that no human or machine could ever get in and make repairs…Fast tracking this project has led to so many late design changes that DOE officials recently claimed the plant was too complex. So they began simplifying the design by scaling back safety measures…For instance, because waste can generate dangerous gases, builders first tried designing and aligning piping systems in ways that prevented fires and mini-explosions. But now, pipes are being designed so that explosions are expected and allowed; plant operators will just have to keep them manageable.”

Yes folks, our world-class Hanford vitrification plant is now being designed to allow explosions of uncontrolled radioactive gas. If not mistaken, this is the same kind of thing that led to the Chernobyl explosion, so the comparison is not far off, and Richland Washington may soon be the American version of Pripyat. Wonder what the Pacific Northwest’s forests will look like in radioactive shades of red?

To make matters worse, an official who spoke up about the potential for explosive disaster at Hanford was fired and forced to file a whistle-blower lawsuit against DOE. Scientists have declared that DOE has grossly underestimated how far a radiation accident could spread at Hanford, but DOE still insists that the public is safe in their hands.

The Seattle Times article notes that official statements include the opinion that the only option is to keep building the vitrification plant on "a leap of faith" that the plant will work. But taking a leap of faith about nuclear safety and radioactive explosions at a government facility is like clapping your hands until Tinkerbell comes back to life. It’s a fool’s errand, and Captain Hook is soon to be swallowed by the Crocodile with the ticking clock in its gullet.

DOE expects us all to have complete and total faith that this untested, unbuilt, undersigned, years late, over budget vitrifcation plant will eventually work so perfectly and never falter or break down, because if it does no human or machine will ever be able to fix it due to the extremely high levels of radioactivity of the waste being processed. REALLY! This plant is the salvation of the western hemisphere’s worst nuclear waste problem? REALLY! If we fall for this, the real world has turned into Disneyland. And if we question DOE’s ethics, we are simply demoted as critics and ushered into the crackpot round file, our concerns ignored.

Suggested Action Steps:

Instead of relying upon blind faith, Heart of America Northwest encourages the following action steps to deal with problems outlined herein. Please contact your Governor, Senators and Representatives with these points:

* Don't delay emptying the leaky High-Level Nucelar Waste Single Shell Tanks by 22 years. Instead, we need to build some new storage tanks, because we can't wait until 2040 to empty tanks or start cleaning up the leaks and deliberate releases under the tanks. Just over a year ago, hundreds of people attended hearings objecting to Washington State’s acceptance of decades of delays in emptying the tanks. Washington State needs to reverse its approval of the delays and begin construction of new holding tanks immediately.

* Stop trying to build the plant without testing the safety and chemical engineering, and reverse the decision that "small" radioactive explosions are acceptable. Congress should bar USDOE from installing the equipment until the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board certifies that the safety plans will work without accepting the possibility of "small" explosions.

* Divert funding away from the vitrification plant to build new storage tanks. This will provide time to properly test the chemical and safety engineering of the vitrification plant to see if it will actually work. Why spend billions on something that isn’t the best known science at this point?

* Demand that USDOE stop trying to plan to dump more waste at Hanford when it won't and can't cleanup the existing contamination. (Yes, while delaying emptying of the Single Shell High-Level Nuclear Waste Tanks until 2040, and proposing NOT to cleanup the leaks - USDOE still insists that it will use Hanford as a national radioactive waste dump after 2020!).

Support Heart of American Northwest’s federal lawsuit to overturn USDOE's decision to use Hanford as a national radioactive waste dump by donating on line at our website www.hoanw.org where you will find more resources for contacting officials and to volunteer.

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