Infamous Hanford Site may yield nuke cleanup clues



A group of Japanese scientists, government officials and company representatives visited the sleepy town of Richland, Washington, in February to seek advice on cleaning up the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

They hoped to find answers at the Hanford Site, a complex of decommissioned nuclear reactors and processing facilities that once turned out plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The roughly 1,500-sq.-km desert facility in Benton County, which housed the first large-scale plutonium-making reactor in the world and was involved in the Manhattan Project, is now known as possibly the most heavily contaminated area in the Western Hemisphere.

As a result, one of the largest and most expensive environmental cleanup projects in history is under way to dispose of the billions of liters and millions of tons of toxic waste dumped at the site, now controlled by the U.S. Energy Department.

The process has attracted the interest of Tokyo, which is hoping to apply lessons from Hanford to mop up the radioactive fallout spewed over vast areas by the Fukushima No. 1 plant’s crippled reactors last year.

But American experts say there are no easy answers.

“There isn’t really a magic bullet,” said Wayne Johnson, a division director at the U.S. government’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where the Japanese delegation met with nuclear cleanup specialists.

“There are many areas of similarity and things that definitely they could learn from (Hanford), but there are also many differences,” Johnson said.

One option is to remove tainted soil from the area, and such operations have been running at Hanford 24/7 since 1996. Every few minutes, a truckload of irradiated topsoil from the site is dumped into a massive pit more than six stories deep and covering an area equivalent to 52 football fields.

This approach is not suitable for Fukushima Prefecture, however, according to Bruce Napier, a scientist studying the effects of radiation on the environment. Unlike Hanford, which is mostly flat and uninhabited, Fukushima is a mountainous and heavily forested area, while there are many communities surrounding the crippled No. 1 power plant.

Johnson added that processing waste mostly involves “pretty low-tech options,” and that more sophisticated techniques, such as turning waste into glass, are site-specific.

Even within Hanford, different areas of contamination require different approaches, Johnson said.

An additional problem that has yet to be resolved at Hanford, and which will bedevil the Fukushima cleanup, is where to store waste that is too toxic to be left on-site, and too hazardous to be buried.

On the other hand, there is one important lesson Japan can draw from efforts at the once top secret site: the importance of openness and transparency.

Before decontamination programs begin, it is vital that local residents understand the risks and have an opportunity to provide input, said Yasuo Onishi, a professor of environmental engineering at Washington State University.

The Japanese government has asked Onishi to share his experiences from helping clean the Hanford Site and also Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe.

Although it might take more time, earning the public’s trust can result in a faster cleanup process in the long run, Onishi said.

Rather than telling residents that “we’re going to do it for you,” the government should instead say: “This is the problem. Let’s work together and try and come up with a solution that is doable, but also allows you to get what you want.”

Echoing this view, radiation scientist Napier said that once people understand the problem, they are more likely to accept the risks involved.

This strategy appears to have worked for the U.S. government at the Hanford Site to some extent. After years of keeping the horrifying extent of contamination secret, it created the Hanford Advisory Board, a body that includes local citizens and works on recommendations as to how best to handle the toxic waste.

Some residents in Richland, meanwhile, seem largely unconcerned by their proximity to the complex. The surrounding region features a number of golf courses and retirement homes, and has developed a reputation for its vineyards, which produce a variety of boutique wines.

Paul Vinthner, who spent 38 years working as a physicist at Hanford, now leads tour groups to the facility’s B-reactor, the first full-scale plutonium-producing unit in the world.

Vinthner has no fears about entering the site on a daily basis.

“I’m convinced that they’re working at it, and they’ll get rid of the (waste) and be able to use some of the area for other needs,” he said.

In the eyes of others, however, such optimism is unfounded.

“It’s my personal opinion that my government can’t resolve the situation here,” said Lori McMillan, who lives near the site and suffers from cancer she believes was caused by exposure to radioactive materials.