In the arid land of southeastern Washington State lies a remote area along the Columbia River that serves as a reminder of the Cold War standoff between the US and the Soviet Union. This 586-square foot relic is the Hanford site—a retired plutonium production complex that the Department of Energy (DOE) considers to be “the world’s largest environmental cleanup project.”

Some 525 million gallons of radioactive waste were generated by Hanford between 1944 and 1988, according to a Government Accountability Office report, and at least 56 million gallons of the stuff remains on site in leaky tanks. Already a million gallons of it has seeped into the ground and contaminated the Columbia River. Meanwhile, the DOE is stalling on the clean up and trying to wiggle out of its 2018 commitment for completion. “They’re trying to avoid the option of having to build storage tanks, which are very expensive, but the cost of a catastrophic tank failure is incalculable,” says Robert Alvarez, senior scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies.

Disturbingly, Hanford isn’t a lone case. America’s fear of Communism, its doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, and its subsequent nuclear weapons buildup over a 45-year span left behind a nationwide toxic waste legacy: 1.7 trillion gallons of contaminated groundwater, 40 million cubic meters of tainted soil and debris, more than 2,000 tons of radioactive spent nuclear fuel, more than 160,000 cubic meters of radioactive and hazardous waste, and more than 100 million gallons of liquid, high-level radioactive waste, according to Max S. Power, author of America’s Nuclear Wastelands: Politics, Accountability, and Cleanup.

“The nuclear arms race left us with 16 major and 100 minor sites all around the country that need to be cleaned up,” says Power.

“Our ‘nuclear wastelands’ are a multi-generational legacy.” Sites across the US include Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, and the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in New York, to name a few.

During the Cold War buildup, little attention was given to the by-products of nuclear production and the focus centered on making weapons. “The Russians were making more of this stuff [nuclear weapons] than the US, so we had to make more too,” says Power. Though the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union’s collapse almost twenty years ago, the DOE’s clean up of Hanford and other “nuclear wastelands” has only just begun.

Hanford is a primary focus for the DOE’s Environmental Management office due to the volume and unique nature of super-concentrated high level waste on site, which was stored in temporary, underground single-shell tanks. Built between the 1940s and 1960s, these steel mammoths each hold up to 1 million gallons of waste and can span the length of a basketball court. But their shelf life of up to 20 years has long since expired, a reality the DOE is well aware of. It’s now buying time transferring the waste from the old tanks to 28 double-shell tanks with longer design lives.

“Dealing with this issue has been a race against time for awhile now,” says Tom Carpenter, founder of the Hanford Challenge, an organization involved in the Hanford site cleanup. Unfortunately, the waste-transferring race is more like a stroll due to its slow and costly process. In the meantime, the tanks leak and pollution worsens.

Approximately 450 billion gallons of waste has already been discharged into the soil during production at the Hanford site—an amount equal to about five days flow of the Columbia River. According to Carpenter, a recent Hanford Challenge study found that 17 out of 18 fish in the Columbia tested positive for plutonium, a highly toxic radioactive element, while a separate 2006 U.S. Geological Survey study found serious damage to the kidneys of Hanford Reach salmon as a result of hexavalent chromium exposure.

In June 2008, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report delivered more bad news on the Hanford site, finding that the DOE lacks comprehensive information about the condition and even the contents of the tanks, which raises “serious questions about the tanks’ long-term viability.” It recommends that the DOE “give priority to assessing single-shell integrity” as the “likelihood of a major tank failure increases with time.”

Carpenter, who works closely with the GAO, was not at all surprised by the report’s findings. “Single-shell tanks in particular are done,” he says. “They’re all going to leak within a matter of time and the government needs to face that reality.”

The DOE begs to differ and points out that it has already had several successful clean up operations in the past. “Preventing further contamination and getting contamination from the groundwater is a top priority in the clean-up,” says Geoff Tyree, DOE spokesperson, noting the clean up of more than 400 of the 761 waste sites and all 65 high priority liquid waste discharge sites along the Columbia River corridor. He adds that the leaked tank waste in the ground currently lies between the surface and the groundwater and appears to be fairly stable in terms of movement.

Additionally, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has also conducted extensive monitoring of the Hanford site and concluded in its 2006 report that though small amounts of radioactive materials were detected downriver from the Hanford site, those amounts were far below federal and state limits.

As fighting over the level of pollution caused by the Hanford site continues, the Tri-Party Agreement deadline between Washington State, the DOE, and the EPA to empty all 149 single-shell tanks by 2018 and close them by 2024 looms near. Although this appears to be of little concern to the DOE, whose internal project schedule for emptying and closing the tanks reflects time frames almost two decades later, according to the GAO report. Not to mention that only 7 of the 177 tanks have been emptied, and none of the waste has been treated due to delays in the construction of the Hanford Vitrification Plant, a controversial and “unprecedented engineering and construction challenge” that will turn the waste into a sturdy glass. It’s set to be finished in 2019, though Carpenter believes there’s little chance of that happening. “They’ll be lucky to have them empty by 2100 at the rate they’re going,” he says.

Currently the DOE is negotiating to extend the Tri-Party Agreement milestones, a move that many believe increases the risk of tank failure. “The federal government is operating under a sense of faith-based management,” says Robert Alvarez, senior scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies who sites a 2001 Nuclear Regulatory Commission study that found DOE contractors consistently downplayed the severity of potential accidents.

It seems the only issue all parties can agree on is that though cleaning up Hanford will be difficult, it needs to be done. “This is not an easy job,” says Carrie Meyer, DOE public affairs officer. “It requires innovation and perseverance to get the cleanup done safely and efficiently.”

Carpenter agrees, adding that the Hanford clean up needs more money and better management, and that the people involved should be ready for the long haul. “It’s going to take the rest of my career and probably the rest of my kids’ and grandkids’ careers to keep working on this cleanup,” says Carpenter. “It’s a biological and environmental threat for the foreseeable future.”

Story by Jessica A. Knoblauch. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008