Plutonium production for the manufacture of nuclear weapons has made the 560 square mile Hanford facility in Eastern Washington one of the most contaminated sites in the world. In 1986, the Department of Energy made public thousands of documents showing there had been off-site releases of radiation as well as considerable contamination of the site. In 1989, DOE agreed to a 30 year, $50 billion schedule for clean up. The resulting legally enforceable pact, the "Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order", also called the "Tri-Party Agreement (TPA), between DOE, the Washington Department of Ecology, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, established a cleanup schedule by which DOE was to bring the Hanford Site into compliance with state and federal environmental laws.
According to information released by the three agencies, cleanup progress has been far slower than expected due to unresolved safety issues (such as the potential for the presence of flammable gas), the need for safety equipment upgrades, the need for improvements in project management practices, cuts to the cleanup budget, and increasing concern over documented groundwater contamination at 8 of DOE's 12 single-shell tank farms.
By mid 1997, it was clear that the existing TPA schedule for completing interim stabilization of single-shell waste holding tanks would not be met, and that project delays would continue. Changes proposed by DOE to tank stabilization milestones were rejected by Ecology in Feb and March of 1998. On June 8, 1998, the Office of the Governor and Washington State attorney General Christine Gregoire notified DOE of Washington State's intention to file suite against them for failure to meet cleanup milestones. Subsequent to this, Washington State and DOE entered into yet another consent decree agreement which once again established "court enforceable, technically sound schedules" for interim tank cleanup.
Aside from delayed tank cleanup schedules, the issue of the level of cleanup of the Columbia River remains unresolved. In a July 1999 report issued by USDOE inspector general Gregory Friedman, cleanup along the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River costs too much to make it worthwhile. DOE has attempted to bypass the Washington State Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA), which sets cleanup standards at a more protective level than those required by the federal government.
The long term solution to the high level waste problem is also uncertain. Because of anticipated cost overruns and other concerns, DOE has recently terminated a contract with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) for the construction of a vitrification plant to solidify tank waste.
Recent media reports suggest contamination at Hanford has gotten out of control: A report released on June 27, 1999, by the Government Accountbility Project focused on the Hanford Site's H-Reactor area, where high levels of chromium already have been shown to impact salmon nests. The report noted levels of strontium-90 at 70 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) next to the salmon spawning grounds in the H-Reactor area. The drinking water standard for strontium-90 is 8 pCi/L. Although strontium-90 has been detected in several shoreline streams entering the Columbia, government studies at that time had only looked at the effects of chromium entering the river.
The September 27 1999 issue of the Seattle PI carries an article entitled Nuclear 'blob' grows at Hanford. This blob is the unexpected side effect of a pump process engineered to dissipate pockets of hydrogen gas in the million gallon tank of nuclear waste called SY-101. The pockets of hydrogen gas would periodically release, posing the potential for an explosion, and causing chunks of waste on the tank surface to "roll over". " ' I don't make any claims about this tank,' said Donald Oakley, a retired environmental expert from Los Almos National Laboratory, hired by the Energy Department as an outside consultant. 'I'm not convinced anyone understands the chemistry and physics involved in this crust.'. 'The rollovers were spectacular, but now we've got another problem, caused by the solution to that problem', said Stephen Agnew, a chemist who worked at Hanford for years". "Another expert, Robert Alvarez, a former senior advisor to the energy secretary on environment, safety, and health, said of the managers at Hanford: 'They were lulled into complacency and forgot the fact the pump was only meant to be a temporary measure to mitigate the problem. They completely ignored the fundamental problem of dispositioning these materials.'
Abnormally high levels of tritium in a monitoring well between the Energy Northwest Complex and the neighboring Hanford "618-11" burial site, which is 3.6 miles from the Columbia River, went undetected for months before the Department of Energy released the information in February 2000.
In the midst of all of these controversial events, the Department of Energy has recently announced that Hanford is one of the two preferred destinations for "low level" and "mixed" nuclear waste from around the nation. This so-called "low level" waste includes highly contaminated control rods, glove boxes, and internal parts of reactors. The so-called "mixed waste" is radioactive waste mixed with hazardous and other types of waste. Additional waste for Hanford suggests additional problems, and more health, safety and environmental risks for the citizens of the Pacific Northwest. All communities along the waste transportation routes would be at risk. Given the current status of cleanup efforts, additional risk is not in the best interest of the citizens of the Pacific Northwest.
The Governor's spokesman, Ed Penhale made the following statement, which appeared in the Thursday December 9, 1999 Seattle Times: " We are concerned about bringing more waste to Hanford when we don't see adequate commitment by the federal government to clean up whats already there". Mr. Penhale also stated: "The state is not willing to accept additional low-level waste or mixed waste unless the Department of Energy agrees to make those shipments contingent on significant progress on the tank-waste cleanup"