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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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.

Comments (10)

Ah, Hanford, the world's largest day care center, where if you keep your mouth shut, you'll get your piece of pie. The DOE is afraid of the workers and the workers are afraid of DOE running out of cash, and the contractors are only afraid of workers or DOE blowing the whistle and interrupting the sweet, sweet river of money.

Basically, the deal is that there are a LOT of unemployable people who could never pull down $80-100k a year for paper shuffling anywhere else, and they know the price of playing is keeping their mouths shut. Likewise, DOE knows that if the money spigot stops gushing money, the bodies start surfacing and people start remembering things that, in better times, they can't seem to remember. It's best to follow the guidance of one old salt out in the area who told us that the way to a successful career at Hanford was to follow the wisdom imparted by the man up to 'here' in (holding his hand flat just above his chin) in pig sh!t: "Don't make waves. Whatever you do, don't make waves."

I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Director of "The Manhatten Project," on the first detonation, Almogordo, NM, July 16, 1945.

George, that reminds me of a comment about US efforts in making a sustainable fusion reactor: "Right now, the experts are saying that we'll have a cost-effective reactor in 25 years, so long as the money keeps coming in for research. Of course, they were saying that 25 years ago, and they'll be saying it 25 years from now."

Many,many decades ago, I was in Hiroshima. Our concerns about the future were a little different in those days.

Create a problem - make money.
Take "care" of problem - make more money.
Ongoing problem - ongoing money drain.
Those who create and those who take "care" of the spoils make the money.
Those who have to live with the insanity of it all suffer the consequences and have to PAY in many ways.

Whatever happened to thinking seven generations ahead?
We once again have “wise” ones making insane decisions for all of us
then looking for ways to “cover."

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.

If it's any comfort John F. Kennedy gets most of the blame now for those bombs. Apparently Robert F McNamara fed him a lot of erroneous information (sound familiar?) about how many the Russkies were building, so JFK had to take typical WW2 hero-type action. And now the Arms Race is a part of history along with our need to deal with the radioactive waste.

This is good to know next time someone is blasting conservatives for being militarists or pro-nuclear power.

If it's any comfort John F. Kennedy gets most of the blame now for those bombs. Apparently... This is good to know next time someone is blasting conservatives for being militarists or pro-nuclear power.

LOL. Ahh, so the nuclear stockpile is Kennedy's fault, so nuclear power is his fault too, just because?


The graph at the link shows that the absolute peak in US non-strategic nuclear weapons occured in about 1960 or 61 based on a very steep growth rate started in 1957. It's hard to blame Kennedy for that one.

The early growth in US strategic nuclear stockpile from about 1953 to about 1957 went flat from about 1957 to about 1963 - the year Kennedy died. Slight growth in the mid 60s in the strategic stockpile was offset by a huge drop in the non-stretegic. That seems hard to pin on the Dead Kennedy any significant increase in overall US nuclear stockpile.

What does this all mean? A wispy "apparently" is not enough to cover the factual baselessness of blaming Kennedy for a massive nuclear stockpile that was mostly built before he became President. But the support for a Democrat as being strong on defense in the face of (implicit) Republican weakness is as refreshing as it is ironic.

A wonderfully clear, well-thought and well-written article.

Bee, I so whole-heartedly second that.

I wonder how many people realize that Hanford is also a nuclear submarine cemetary. Years ago, I was chatting with a company nurse about a book that I had just finished reading entitled 'Killing Our Own'. She excitedly told me about her stint at Hanford when she was a young RN. She was at a picnic when all of a sudden everyone ran closer to the banks of 'N Chi Wana', sadly now called the Columbia, and watched as a submarine was barged up the river. She asked where they were taking it, they told her when she got her security clearance, she would find out. Shortly after that they took her out on the Hanford Reservation and showed her the nuclear submarine cemetary, subs as far as she could see, all lying in unlined pits. I'm sure there is no accurate accounting of how many or where these nuclear subs are buried.

Thank you Jack.

What really happens at Hanford and what the media bothers to tell us about, in those rare moments when it's paying attention, are two different things. "Killing Our Own," by Portland native Norm Solomon, is a great book. The place is a complete horror show.

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