Hanford -- the ultimate money pit
One of the great fairy tales of our time is that the United States is going to come up with a responsible long-term disposal system for the wicked nuclear waste that is generated as a byproduct of atomic bomb production. For 65 years we've been creating tank farms full of deadly radioactive sludge, by the way we make nuclear weapons: Run a reactor, take out the used fuel (which would kill you if you stood next to it for 10 minutes), dissolve it in a nasty chemical bath, and then sift out the plutonium and the kind of uranium that our bomb designers like to use. After we get what we need for our friendly weapons of mass destruction, what's left over goes into tanks. Virtually all of the stuff that would kill you on contact is left in that brew.
The tanks don't last forever. After a few decades, they start to leak and belch and threaten local water and air. And so there's a need for new tanks, and the waste is transferred from an older tank to a newer one. Since the tank contents are brutally radioactive, highly toxic as a chemical matter even if they weren't radioactive, and somewhat uncertain in their composition, moving them is expensive and dangerous. It's like melted-down nuclear "corium" from a disaster like Chernobyl or Fukushima. In some ways, it's worse, because of the stuff added by the process of extracting the bomb fuel "goodies."
And so here is where the fairy tale starts. The engineering geniuses who brought you nuclear destruction and nuclear power say that with the right amount of money, they can turn the tank waste into a kind of glass that won't need to be stored in a tank. The "vitrified" waste will be as solid and unlikely to leak as a spent nuclear fuel rod from a commercial reactor -- the more familiar stuff that sits in spent fuel pools from coast to coast, giving off its scary blue light.
The problem, of course, is that we don't know what we're going to do with vitrified defense waste -- or commercial reactor spent fuel, for that matter -- in the long run. Supposedly the federal government is going to build and open a giant underground vault, and it will all get shipped to, and buried, there. The deep dump will be sealed off, and the waste will stay there forever.
It had better stay there forever, because a lot of it is going to be dangerously radioactive for something like 10,000 years. In some ways, it's hard to picture what that means. Ten thousand years ago, farming on earth was just beginning. The population of the world was 5 million. An ice age was just ending. There weren't many people in North America -- certainly, no white people. The first European settlement on the continent was about 450 years ago.
Given that we don't know what will become of our nation, or our species, so far into the future, some say it's our moral responsibility to find a final solution for high-level nuclear waste now -- before there comes a "loss of institutional control." This kind of talk has been circulating around for three decades or more.
And that's where the big-bucks corporations come in. Oh yes, they can provide the permanent answer for the defense waste problem, but it's going to cost you.
Is it ever.
Which brings us to the latest chapter in the fairy tale. Now the federal "Energy" Department, Bechtel, and the other mega-firm contractors who run the nuclear horror show at Hanford are starting to tell each other that the $12.2 billion budget for the waste vitrification plant probably isn't going to be enough. Doggone it, they can get the job done, but it's going to cost just a little bit more.
Not too much. Oh, I don't know -- a mere $900 million more.
The engineering is not proven to work -- if we had to bet, we'd say it's never going to deliver what's been promised. And the costs just go up and up and up. The nuke boys have got us where they want us -- we have to do something. And they'll charge whatever they darn well please.
You want to know why the federal government almost defaulted on its debts? It's because of projects like Hanford. Even if you think it was, and is, a great idea for the United States to use and stockpile our engines of widespread death, consider the cost of the full production cycle. Our parents and grandparents didn't, and they've left us an awful mess, at Hanford and several other places across the country. If it doesn't kill us, it may very well break us.