Business_news Inside America’s most toxic nuclear waste dump, where 56 million gallons of buried radioactive sludge are leaking into the earth

Business_news

The stacks of two Department of energy production reactors fall in a simultaneous demolition at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Jackie Johnston / AP

  • Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the most polluted area in the United States. Buried beneath the complex is 56 million gallons of radioactive waste that need to be dealt with.
  • The reservation produced the plutonium for Fat Man, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in Japan, as well as for the United States’ atomic weapon stockpile during the Cold War.
  • In June 2019, President Trump’s administration announced it would downgrade the threat levels of some radioactive waste to save the Government$40 billion on cleanup.
  • The announcement has been criticized as a way to make cleaning up nuclear waste easier, without actually doing the clean-up part.
  • Trump’s administration also wants to cut Hanford’s funding by $416 million. Butthe cleanupneeds more funding, not less.
  • Visit business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Sitting on 586 square miles of desert in Washington, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is themost toxic place in America.

Buried beneath the ground, in storage tanks, are 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Many of them are leaking into the ground.

According to NBC, some nuclear experts have said Hanford is “an undergroundChernobylwaiting to happen.”

Hanford produced the plutonium to build Fat Man, the atomic weapon that was detonated above Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and for the United States’s nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.

In 1989, after years of dismissing concerns about contamination, the reservation’s management finally admitted the site needed to be cleaned up. But cleaning up nuclear waste is difficult. It can’t be burned or buried. The plan is to build a waste management plant that will turn the waste into glass, which can be stored away for thousands of years. It’s a slow, costly process.

AsThe Daily Beast reported, “Hanford is the worst kind of mess: the kind that humanity is capable of making, but not capable of cleaning up.”

The longer the contaminated materials are left,the worse they become. Here’s what the nuclear reservation is like.

Business_news Hanford is built on a desert in Washington, spread out over 586 squares miles.

Aerial view of Hanford Atomic Plant in Richland, Washington.

AP

The government was wary of the repercussions of a major incident andchose an isolated location, away from cities on the East Coast. But it’s in an area prone to wildfires andpossible earthquakes.

The last big earthquake in the area was in 1936. But another sizeable one could release radiation, like what happened with the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.

Business_news The Columbia River passes Hanford to the north and the east by a few miles, and it’s downstream from two dams.

The Columbia River flows past the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Elaine Thompson / AP

The government wanted the site to be close to dams for electricity, and close to the river so it had a source of cool liquid tocool the reactors.

In 2017, the EPA said contaminated groundwater wasflowing freelyinto the river.

Business_news The Hanford Nuclear Reservation began operating on September 6, 1944.

One of the areas at the Hanford Engineering plant near Pasco, Wash., where nuclear weapons are produced, in 1945.

Hulton-Deutsch / Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis / Getty

Hanford played a vital part in the top-secret Manhattan Project, which was the Government’s research and development program for nuclear weapons.

The government purchased the land in 1943, and gave about 1,500 people30 days to leave.

Business_news The first reactor was built in 11 months, and the majority of the 50,000 person workforce did not know what it was that they were working on…

Hanford workers.

Wikimedia

Business_news …until the first nuclear bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

A roadside sign on the Hanford Reach National Monument.

Elaine Thompson / AP

Secret, the government banned trespassing and set up a buffer zone called Hanford Reach." id="to-keep-the-nuclear-complex-secret-the-government-banned-trespassing-and-set-up-a-buffer-zone-called-hanford-reach-6">

Business_news To keep the nuclear complex Secret, the government banned trespassing and set up a buffer zone called Hanford Reach.

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A swallow sits on a desert plant next to the Columbia River near the Hanford Reach National Monument.

Elaine Thompson / AP

Instead of the land being developed by farmers and ranchers, it’s been left untouched for 75 years, and wildlife has boomed. In 2000, former President Bill Clinton made the195,000 acre areaaNational Monument.

In the area, there are herds of elk, Chinook salmon breed in stretches of the river in Autumn, and there is also an abundance ofbirds, including burrowing owls, Swainson hawks, and sagebrush sparrows.

Business_news The “B” reactor was the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. This is its control room.

The control room of the Hanford nuclear reservation’s famous “B” reactor.

Ted S. Warren / AP

It was the “B” reactor that produced the first plutonium in the United States. The first supply of plutonium was delivered to the army onFebruary 2 1945.

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Business_news Hanford’s plutonium was used in the Trinity Test, the first detonated nuclear bomb, and in Fat Man, the nuclear bomb was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945.

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Photographer: U.S. Airforce via Wikipedia

Business_news After World War II, there was a brief production hiatus. But in 1948, plutonium became a priority again.

Cold War-era billboard at the Hanford site

Wikimedia

This time it was to supply the US with anuclear arsenalduring the Cold War. Five more reactorswere built by 1955. Production would continue on into the late 1980s.

Government." id="when-the-plant-was-up-and-running-using-nine-nuclear-reactors-and-five-reprocessing-plants-it-produced-about-65-of-the-plutonium-used-by-the-us-government-10">

Business_news When the plant was up and running, using nine nuclear reactors and five reprocessing plants, it produced about 65% of the plutonium used by the US Government.

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Worker wearing polyethylene plastic suits making repairs in the radioactive portion of the atomic energy plant in 1954.

Nat Farbman / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

Business_news Hanford produced 67 metric tons of plutonium in all, and was responsible for a large part of the 60,000 nuclear weapons made by the US by 1987.

Workers remove fuel from the core of the Hanford Test Reactor, in 1972.

Smith Collection / Gado / Getty

Business_news But producing the plutonium came at a cost. Even a small batch would result in a huge amount of contaminated waste.

In 1988, employee Steve Flores stands nearby as Radiation Safety Officer Mike Nolan checks barrels of low-level Class A commercial nuclear waste with a Geiger counter.

Roger Ressmeyer / Corbis / VCG / Getty

Business_news Admittedly, it was new territory for the US. Here, Homer Moulthorp wears one of the suits he invented to stop employees from getting radiation poisoning.

Engineer Homer Moulthorp, wearing one of the polyethylene plastic suits he invented to protect technicians from radiation at atomic energy plants

Nat Farbman / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

The plastic suit was nicknamed “Homer’s Hideous Hallucination.” Before that, the employees had to wear heavy clothing that had to be buriedafter being used once.

Business_news To monitor radiation poisoning, scientists working at the complex tested animals, including rats, cats, dogs, cows, sheep, pigs, and alligators.

Testing a sheep’s thyroid for radiation.

Wikimedia

Business_news Because it was a new kind of science, much of the nuclear waste was mismanaged and improperly disposed of.

Workmen at Nuclear Engineer Co.’s Hanford, Washington site on April 23, 1979 remove lid from canister holding sealed container of low level radio-action waste.

Mason / AP

When Hanford first produced nuclear waste, workerssimply took contaminated clothes and tools and buried them in the desert, without recording where. This made the cleaning process difficult in the years to come, since the area is so large, and there’s no way for sure to know what’s buried where.

Business_news Hanford had different processes for different wastes — slightly contaminated liquids went into ponds, solid waste was buried, and some gases were released into the air.

The burial process for a decommissioned reactor vessel.

Jackie Johnston / AP

Business_news But the most concerning is the highly radioactive waste that was stored in 177 storage tanks, each holding between 55,000 and 100,000 gallons.

Underground tank farm with 12 of the site’s 177 waste storage tanks.

Wikimedia

Business_news Along with the tanks, cesium and strontium capsules are stored in water in the reserve.

Cesium and strontium capsules are stored in water at the Department of energy’s Hanford site in Washington State in 2012.

US Department of energy / AP

Strontium is also called “bone seeker” because it remains in people’s bones once ingested and increases their risk of getting cancer.

energy, and the Washington State Department of Ecology to clean up the area." id="in-1989-the-tri-party-agreement-was-signed-by-the-environmental-protection-agency-the-department-of-energy-and-the-washington-state-department-of-ecology-to-clean-up-the-area-21">

Business_news In 1989, the Tri-Party Agreement was signed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of energy, and the Washington State Department of Ecology to clean up the area.

energy, and the Washington State Department of Ecology to clean up the area." data-class=" postload" data- data-src="https://amp.businessinsider.com/images/5d822ab92e22af6a4e7e7502-750-562.jpg" data-title="">

In 1988, a worker looks through the open door of a storage room for nuclear fuel. Rods here will be processed into bomb fuel.

Roger Ressmeyer / Corbis / VCG / Getty

By then Hanford was no longer making plutonium. From the mid-1960s, reactors had been shutting down until thelast one closed in 1987. It was exclusively a massive environmental hazard that needed to be cleaned up.

Business_news Despite the agreement, what would follow would be a slow, often halting, attempt to clean up the most toxic place in America, at a cost of $2 billion a year.

The Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Jeff T. Green / Getty

Business_news No longer a nuclear weapons factory, nuclear reactor stacks were knocked down…

The stacks of two Department of energy production reactors fall in a simultaneous demolition at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash., Saturday, Aug. 14, 1999.

Jackie Johnston / AP

Business_news … And reactors were sealed off from the world, also known as being “fully cocooned.”

Two decommissioned plutonium-producing reactors on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash.

Nicholas K. Geranios / AP

They willremainlike thisfor 75 years, until radiation falls to a safe level and they can be disposed.

Business_news In 1998, after 50 years of saying that leaks from the tanks were insignificant, management admitted that was not the case.

A worker in a radiation suit talks to a man through a chain-link fence.

Roger Ressmeyer /Corbis / VCG / Getty

Management also said it would take 10,000 years before the waste would reach groundwater, but it had already reached it.

According to theNew York Times, it was only after a million gallons of waste had leaked into the ground, which the energy Department didn’t know how to fix, that it said more information was necessary. A year earlier, the plant fired an employee after he spoke about the issue “too vigorously.”

Business_news Despite no longer producing plutonium the surrounding areas continued to feel the effects of the nuclear waste.

The photo shows how close the wildfire came to some of the defunct reactors on the reservation.

Jackei Johnston / AP

In 2000, wildfiresthreatened the complex, and Washington’s Department of Health reported a rise in plutonium levels in the area, although the levels were not life-threatening. The increase was thought to be spread by dust and ash. There have also been issues with radioactive wasp nests,fruit flies, and rabbits.

When radioactive rabbit droppings were found in the area, it was protocol to set traps to kill the rabbits.

Business_news Radioactive tumbleweeds rolling across the reservation also caused issues in the early 2000s.

Todd Ponczoch uses a Geiger counter to check tumbleweeds on the Hanford nuclear reservation for radiation.

Jackie Johnston / AP

Business_news In 2002, work began on Hanford Vit Plant, a waste treatment plant, which is the key to cleaning up Hanford.

A waste treatment plant under construction.

Ted S. Warren / AP

Business_news It’s also become a tourist destination for kayakers on the Columbia River.

Kayakers take in the view of the B Reactor.

Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times / Getty

In 2008, Columbia Kayak Adventures rantwo to three tours each month, which The Los Angeles Times described as “a theme park next to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.”

As for radiation on and in the river, health officials said fish tested for radiation posed no health risk, while environmental groups said there was a risk for people who regularly swam and fished in the river.

Business_news Even as the complex continues to deteriorate. In 2013, new leaks were discovered in several underground tanks.

Workers labor at the ‘C’ Tank Farm at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Ted S. Warren / AP

While management already knew that one tank was leaking,at a rate of up to 300 gallons of waste every year, the discovery that five more were also leaking was especially concerning.

As The Daily Beast put it, while nuclear sludge dripping into the soil and mixing with groundwater might sound apocalyptic to many people, to those familiar with Hanford it’s just another mishap, of whichthere have been many.

energy Department's top official at the reservation, said infrastructure was breaking down, and more nuclear radiation would be released." id="in-2015-doug-shoop-the-energy-departments-top-official-at-the-reservation-said-infrastructure-was-breaking-down-and-more-nuclear-radiation-would-be-released-32">

Business_news In 2015, Doug Shoop, the energy Department’s top official at the reservation, said infrastructure was breaking down, and more nuclear radiation would be released.

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Doug Shoop, manager of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s Richland Operations Office,

Nicholas K. Geranios / AP

Business_news Shoop was right. In 2017, a tunnel storing radioactive waste collapsed.

A 20-by-20-foot-wide hole in one of two tunnels leading into the Hanford site’s PUREX facility.

DOE; business Insider

It was covered up again by workers and no contamination was detected, but the EPA said more tunnels would collapse asthe equipment deteriorated.

energy has said that Hanford's 10,000 workers are still at risk. Here, a worker is checked for radiation." id="the-department-of-energy-has-said-that-hanfords-10000-workers-are-still-at-risk-here-a-worker-is-checked-for-radiation-34">

Business_news The Department of energy has said that Hanford’s 10,000 workers are still at risk. Here, a worker is checked for radiation.

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Crews check a member for radiation after a day working to dismantle K-Reactor complex on the Hanford nuclear reservation.

Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times / Getty

energy wanted to dispose of all of the underground waste by 2047, but that's unlikely." id="the-department-of-energy-wanted-to-dispose-of-all-of-the-underground-waste-by-2047-but-thats-unlikely-36">

Business_news The Department of energy wanted to dispose of all of the underground waste by 2047, but that’s unlikely.

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A sign warns of possible hazards in the soil.

Elaine Thompson / AP

It’s now looking more like2079 or 2102. In February 2019, the department released a new estimate of how much the process would cost. It had leaped from $110 billion to$660 billion.

Trump wants to cut annual funding for the clean-up by $416 million." id="and-while-costs-are-rising-president-trump-wants-to-cut-annual-funding-for-the-clean-up-by-416-million-37">

Business_news And while costs are rising, President Trump wants to cut annual funding for the clean-up by $416 million.

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President Donald Trump.

Associated Press/Evan Vucci

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said the cleanup wouldn’t be donefor another 300 yearsif Trump’s budget goes through.

Trump’s administration also wants to reclassify high-level waste as low-level to cut costs.

won't stop fighting for the cleanup, but Tom Hanford, executive director of the watchdog Hanford Challenge, says that all the waste is never going to be dug up." id="environmentalists-wont-stop-fighting-for-the-cleanup-but-tom-hanford-executive-director-of-the-watchdog-hanford-challenge-says-that-all-the-waste-is-never-going-to-be-dug-up-38">

Business_news Environmentalists won’t stop fighting for the cleanup, but Tom Hanford, executive director of the watchdog Hanford Challenge, says that all the waste is never going to be dug up.

won't stop fighting for the cleanup, but Tom Hanford, executive director of the watchdog Hanford Challenge, says that all the waste is never going to be dug up." data-class=" postload" data- data-src="https://amp.businessinsider.com/images/5d8378292e22af1ef511e692-750-563.jpg" data-title="">

The historical B Reactor.

Jeff T. Green / Getty

He told The Atlanticin 2018 that the majority of Hanford’s waste was going nowhere. “Hanford is going to be a national sacrifice zone for hundreds of years,” he said.

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