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Editor's Note: This post was written by Joshua Frank, the author of our October 19 cover story.
What would a nuclear explosion at the Hanford site in Eastern Washington actually look like and whom would it impact? This seems to be an important concern brought to attention following my Seattle Weekly cover story that appeared on October 19 ("Hanford's Nuclear Option"). The answer to this question, however, may not be as straightforward as our readers, and the public, would like.
As you might imagine, one of the answers depends greatly on the size of such an accident. There are a total of 53 million gallons of radioactive waste in 177 underground tanks at Hanford. These tanks hold hot nuclear gunk and are living well past their so-called "design life." Thus far, the Department of Energy (DOE) notes that one-third of these elderly tanks are most likely leaking. Since these containers are not safely contained, there is always the chance of a future explosion.
The reach of such a disaster depends on which of these tanks would be affected. It is safe to say that the area around Hanford would be most contaminated from radioactive fallout. Likewise, communities downwind at the time of the accident will also be affected. This could include cities from Spokane to the north to Boise to the south, if not further into Canada and Montana.
If one of these tanks were to catch fire -- not an entirely unreasonable possibility, mind you -- the smoke billows could carry radioactive pollution for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles across the country. The effects, however, would have the greatest impact on communities closest to Hanford -- in this case the Tri-Cities and Walla-Walla to the east.
In addition to a potential tank explosion, the groundwater contamination from a Hanford leak is also potentially deadly, not only to the local economies that rely on clean Columbia River water, but also to nearby towns. Currently, the DOE's Groundwater Remediation Project monitors the flow of underground contamination and analyzes data on radioactivity of the area's groundwater. And as you can imagine, the more these tanks leak, the harder it will be to clean up the groundwater or contain the mess. Unfortunately, spikes in underground radioactivity are all-too frequent.
The features that made the Hanford site so initially desirable--especially its proximity to the Columbia River--are what make its decay now so imperiling.
Last November researchers at Hanford detected a spike in radioactive soil below Building 324, an aging structure that includes B Cell, a lab where scientists at one time conducted nuclear fuel studies by remote control. The building is only a quarter mile from both the town of Richland and the Columbia River. For years B Cell has hummed with radioactivity, so much so that in the early-1990s any person who entered the building unprotected would have received a lethal dose of radiation within a mere two seconds.
While these elements move slower than molasses, they only have a mere 50 feet to flow before they enter the aquifer that feeds the Columbia River and thousands of irrigators downstream.
"[The finding] is something that is significant," Larry Gadbois, an EPA scientist at Hanford, said of the newly discovered activity at Building 324 late last year.
"Two soil samples that were collected from beneath the building, in the worst part of the spill, are being measured in the lab so we have a better understanding of the contamination," says Gadbois. "Of course it is very radioactive ... [However], as bad as the contamination is within the upper soil, the problem does appear to be contained."
Contained for now. But with tens of millions of gallons of radioactive waste sitting in old underground tanks, more leaking is assured.
So what does this mean for Washington residents, in particular those who live close to Hanford? It means these folks ought to be concerned and diligent in pressuring the federal government to do its job and make sure the cleanup of Hanford is done right, and as quickly as humanly possible.