Where thereâ€™s muck, thereâ€™s brass
UNTIL the Japanese catastrophe of last weekend, the biggest nuclear mess in the Western world could be found at the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state, where Americaâ€™s government once made most of the plutonium for its nuclear weapons. More than two decades after the clean-up began, officials have yet to deal with any of the nasty stuff.
At the Hanford site, which sprawls across a sagebrush plain in the south-east of the state, none of the 53m gallons (200m litres) of highly toxic waste stored in 177 ageing and leaky underground tanks has been mopped up, even though the last reactor was shut down in 1987. That must wait until 2019, when a unique waste-treatment plantâ€”described as the largest and most expensive nuclear clean-up project ever undertakenâ€”will begin transforming radioactive leftovers that could poison the nearby Columbia river into still-radioactive glass logs more suitable for long-term storage. If all goes well, gunk-to-glass processing (â€œvitrificationâ€) will continue until at least 2047 and cost about $74 billion, more than the annual budget of Americaâ€™s Department of Education.
But all is not well. The Defence Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which watches how the Department of Energy runs its nuclear-weapons sites, is currently investigating the safety of the waste-treatment process itself. A whistleblower was removed from his senior job last year after warning that the plant could explode once the operation starts. The safety board is looking into the possibility that witnesses at a hearing were pressured by the DOE and its contractors to downplay the risks. The DOE, in response, has sent a peeved letter to the safety board. It insists that the plant will be safe and warns that the safety board has no authority to investigate possible witness tampering.
â€œThe safety board is on a collision course with the DOE,â€ reckons Robert Alvarez, now at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and formerly a DOE official who monitored Hanford. â€œIt will raise uncertainty, lead to more delays and drive up the price of the clean-up.â€ For local residents, this is not by any means bad news. Cost overruns and delays have plagued the clean-upâ€”and the quarter-of-a-million people who live near Hanford are vastly richer because of them. â€œIf the government spends more money, it is good for all of us,â€ says Leonardo Luzi, the owner and chef at Bella Italia, a pricey eatery in the nearby town of Kennewick.
Thanks to Hanfordâ€™s sustained ability to soak up federal dollars, the great recession skipped over Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, fast-growing towns on the Columbia river that call themselves the Tri-Cities. House values soared. Job growth in the area was, amazingly, the highest in the country last year. Environmental scientists earned higher salaries there than in Seattle. Business publications include the Tri-Cities on their lists of the best places to live and work. At the Columbia Mall, where it is often difficult to find a parking space, a Hallmark shop selling greeting cards was recently replaced by a Coach shop selling $800 handbags.
People in the area are still proud of having churned out 64 tons of plutonium over 40 years for Americaâ€™s tens of thousands of nukes. The material that went into Fat Man, the plutonium bomb detonated over Nagasaki, was made at Hanford, which at its peak consisted of nine nuclear reactors and five plutonium reprocessing plants. Richland High School still calls itself â€œthe home of the bombersâ€. A sign in front of the school features a mushroom cloud. But the local residents also understand that cleaning up after the cold war pays even better than winning it.