America’s Fukushima?

The nuclear reactors at Hanford made plutonium for Fat Man, the nuclear weapon dropped on Nagasaki, and stocked our Cold War arsenal; today, they sit on a radioactive wasteland that whistle-blowers say is a ticking time bomb. Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

At Atomic Ale Brewpub & Eatery in Richland, Wash., you can feast on a “Reactor Core” pizza, made with “spicy nuclear butter,” wash it down with a Half-Life Hefeweizen or an Atomic Amber, and finish your meal with Plutonium Porter Chocolate Containment Cake. Later you might have at some pins at Atomic Bowl, the “Home of Nuclear Bowling,” or catch a Richland High School football game, the team’s name – Bombers – looming over the field, a mushroom cloud logo on the scoreboard.

The town’s pervasive dark humor alludes to a darker past – and a troubling, radioactive present. The plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki came from what’s known today as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, around which Richland grew and thrived. During the Cold War, Hanford churned out plutonium for our nuclear arsenal. Then the Soviet threat ended, and the residents in this corner of eastern Washington were left with what is routinely called the most toxic place in the Western Hemisphere.

Today, it is not a Soviet missile that threatens this once-pristine high desert. If disaster strikes Richland, it will be because the federal government (namely, the Department of Energy) allowed 56 million gallons of radioactive waste to fester in this sandy soil, where some say it is rife for an explosion. And, critics charge, the DOE has watched its prime contractor on the site, Bechtel, grossly overcharge the American public for a waste-treatment plant so poorly built that, once it’s finished (if it ever gets finished), feeding nuclear material through it could cause a catastrophe.

A poster from the recent Occupy Portland protests called Hanford “North America’s Fukushima.” That isn’t just left-wing, anti-corporate fear mongering – a catastrophic accident involving radioactive waste scares the two most prominent Hanford whistle-blowers, nuclear engineer Walter L. Tamosaitis, fired from the site last month, and Donna Busche, a nuclear safety compliance officer who remains employed by URS, a Hanford subcontractor, even as her legal complaints – which include allegations of everything from pressure to downplay safety concerns to sexual harassment – proceed. Unprompted, Busche told Newsweek she is worried about “when ‘Fukushima Day’ hits.”

Last year, nuclear scientist Donald H. Alexander, formerly of the DOE, likened Hanford to the doomed 1986 Challenger mission, a disaster arising from an excess of confidence.

Speaking of the cosmos: Some have suggested we launch our nuclear waste into space, to be swallowed by the sun. That may sound insane, but spend a little time sorting through the Hanford morass, and just about anything other than the status quo will seem appealing.

Taking Out the Manhattan Project Trash

Tamosaitis began working at Hanford on April Fools’ Day in 2003. Back in 1989, he had started another job on April Fools’ Day – at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a Manhattan Project legacy whose waste had to be safely secured. He says that job was better, though. The New Jersey–born engineer with a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama at Huntsville still speaks fondly of life in Columbia, S.C., where his family – wife and two daughters – remained while he started work at Hanford as an employee of URS, which is a Bechtel subcontractor on the site.

It was a lonely existence, with Tamosaitis ensconced in temporary quarters at the Washington Square Apartments, a row of gray polygons on the town’s meager main strip. He points these out as we drive toward the Hanford site, which sits at the northern edge of town, just past a severe turn of the Columbia River. “I considered work my calling, I really enjoyed it,” he says in the booming voice of a general who has no need or patience for affectation. “Many times, work came before the family.”

Bechtel had taken over the site three years prior to Tamosaitis’s arrival, promising to clean up what had become a confounding problem for the DOE. It was here, in 1943, on the tumbleweed-covered banks of the Columbia, that the federal government confiscated 586 square miles of land in the name of the Manhattan Project, effectively leveling two towns – White Bluffs and Hanford. Remote and close to a large supply of water, Hanford became – along with plants in Savannah River, S.C.; Rocky Flats, Colo.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn. – a secretive node where the musings of Los Alamos physicists took bellicose shape.

The reactor on these desiccated steppes converted uranium-238 into plutonium-239, the fissionable stuff inside the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The ensuing Cold War escalation was a boon for the engineers and workers at Hanford, with eight more reactors built throughout the subsequent two decades. Only one of them – completed in 1963 and visited by John F. Kennedy two months before his assassination – was ever harnessed to produce energy. The rest worked solely to enrich nuclear materiel for rockets intended to fend off a Soviet assault that never materialized.

The last of those nine reactors was decommissioned in 1987, inaugurating an era that would prove even more lucrative for those who sought to make Hanford their livelihood: cleaning up the waste left behind from four decades of making nuclear weapons. The Atomic Energy Commission had by now become the Department of Energy, and it presented a daunting challenge to contractors: 177 underground storage tanks (the bucolically named “Tank Farms”) holding 56 million gallons of waste that included radionuclides like strontium-90 and cesium-137.

Private firms quickly realized how profitable a contract here could be, yet little actual cleaning up was done for years, with The Economist noting, “most of the 1990s [were] frittered away, along with billions of dollars.” A potential savior arrived when British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) contracted with the DOE to build a waste-treatment plant in 1998 that was going to turn the radioactive refuse into glass, thus allowing it to decay in a form that would be largely impervious to outside shocks, whether from earthquakes or terrorists. Two years later, with costs having risen to a projected $15.2 billion from the original $6.9 billion estimate, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson booted BNFL. An executive for the company said he was “sorry to lose the Hanford contract” but noted, prophetically, that it “promised too little reward and left us with a high level of financial risk.”

That risk is indeed great. Vast and vastly radioactive, Hanford has some 1,000 separate waste sites of varying size, according to John M. Zachara, senior chief scientist for environmental chemistry at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. These include a plume of hexavalent chromium – the carcinogenic villain in Erin Brockovich – moving towards the Columbia, the Northwest’s largest river, as well as technetium-99, which has also seeped into the groundwater, in addition to uranium, beryllium, and other wastes, both radioactive and not. The technetium has a half-life (the length of time it will take for half of the element to decay) of 212,000 years, meaning it’s pretty much around until the proverbial end of time.

Yet risk didn’t deter Bechtel, the nation’s largest construction firm, one which has been responsible for projects as varied as the Hoover Dam and Boston’s Big Dig. It built the 1,068-mile Trans-Arabian Pipeline and has upgraded the London Underground. In late 2000, Bechtel promised the DOE that for only $4.3 billion, it could finish the job BNFL had started. Its motto back then: “Glass in 2008.”

Thirteen years later, no waste has been vitrified at Hanford – there may be some glass in 2019, but even that is an optimistic projection. In the process, Bechtel has been accused of silencing and even firing those who’ve raised concerns about its Hanford project, which has been slow, expensive and full of evasions. It has nearly tripled in estimated cost (now at about $13 billion), and could hit $25 billion. The nuclear waste, all 56 million gallons of it, remains underground and will stay there for a while, because in 2012 the DOE – no longer able to ignore whistle-blowers, including those within its own ranks – stopped all but some marginal work on the waste-treatment plant, worried that Bechtel was rushing to meet benchmarks without thinking the project through, potentially exposing nuclear materials to conditions that could lead to an explosion.

Company chief Stephen Bechtel Sr. once boasted, “We can build anything, anytime, anywhere.” That may be true, but at what cost?

Hanford5 Walter L. Tamosaitis Rajah Bose Corporate Welfare and Radioactive Ketchup

Those proud predictions of “Glass in 2008” ended in 2005, recalls Tamosaitis. He had been part of the team that built a successful vitrification plant at the Savannah River site, but Hanford resisted easy solutions. Six different processes had been used there to enrich plutonium from uranium, which made for radically different waste signatures within the 177 canisters at the Tank Farms, where one container could hold up to a million gallons of waste. Sixty-seven of those tanks were single-shell carbon steel containers that had leaked at one time or another, which isn’t much of a surprise, since they were supposed to last only 20 years. And each tank holds its own toxic cornucopia. As Scientific American noted last spring, “Overall, the tanks hold every element in the periodic table, including half a ton of plutonium, various uranium isotopes and at least 44 other radionuclides.” While the Tank Farms were not Bechtel’s responsibility – that is now managed by Washington River Protection Solutions – the creep of nuclear waste toward the Columbia River has made it imperative that the tanks be drained, that their waste be turned into glass.

In late 2005, Tamosaitis was asked by his bosses to head a review team that identified the 28 most trenchant problems with the treatment plant, from the broad (“Inconsistent Long-Term Mission Focus”) to the particular (“Instability of Baseline Ion Exchange”). That Tamosaitis was picked to lead the review seemed an endorsement by URS of his ability to solve complex problems. I don’t know if Tamosaitis is a creative thinker, but he is obviously a meticulous one. This is obvious from the museum-quality antique cars in his basement, each of which he restored to its near-original condition. He is now working on a Chevy pickup with his 5-year-old granddaughter, who helps him paint each part.

The daunting challenges at Hanford, however, would not allow for a car hobbyist’s leisurely pace. Part of the problem was the “design-build” approach Bechtel chose for the project, meaning that it moved ahead rapidly with construction before resolving some major technical challenges, hoping to solve problems as they arose, rather than testing exhaustively beforehand. Design-build is not uncommon, but perhaps not prudent for an engineering feat as complex as the waste-treatment plant. It is like trying to change a tire while flying down the highway.

By 2009, an issue coded M3 was the largest remaining problem: “Inadequate Design of Mixing Systems.” The plant Bechtel was racing to complete called for a facility that would pull waste from the Tank Farms and send the contents to either to a High Level or Low Activity vitrification plant, where it would be turned into glass by 2,000-degree melters. The glass canisters bearing less dangerous elements could remain on site, while the rest would be shipped to a permanent storage facility – for example, the beleaguered Yucca Mountain 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, a project President Obama halted in 2009.

The waste in the Tank Farms is not uniform: about 33 percent is liquid, according to a 2003 study, “a caustic brine containing sodium, nitrate, nitrite, hydroxide, fluoride, phosphate, and sulfate”; another 42 percent is “salt cake” precipitated from the liquid. What remains, the last 25 percent, has proven to be the trickiest – a radioactive sludge that has settled at the bottom of tanks. Laced with radioactive isotopes, it is viscous like an especially thick, pulpy ketchup, difficult to move through pipes because it does not follow the Newtonian properties of most fluids.

Before the waste becomes glass, it has to be properly separated and prepared for vitrification. That’s to take place at the Pre-Treatment Plant, where it flows into tanks in which pulse-jet mixers – Tamosaitis describes them as giant turkey basters – are supposed to stir it into a homogenous mixture. But tests found that the heavier sludge may still settle at the bottom. At the Savannah River site, mechanical agitators – Tamosaitis likens these to the blades of a blender – whip this grainy goo back up; no such agitators have been installed at Hanford, meaning that the flow of the heaviest, most radioactive particles could be impeded by their settling at the bottom of the vessels or inside pipes.

Should that occur, there will be little chance to correct an accumulation of radioactive sludge, since the mixers are installed in “black cells” that will be so rife with radiation that workers won’t be able to enter them, meaning that the plant will have to operate with minimal human input, even if something goes amiss.

An incident at the Sellafield nuclear complex on England’s northwest coast was an ominous warning: In 2004, a pipe feeding into a black cell burst, spilling what a British governmental investigation calls a “highly radioactive liquor” rich in uranium and plutonium. A report in The Oregonian on Hanford’s problematic black cells noted of the Sellafield incident: “The cell contained the leak. But operators didn’t discover it for three months, and the plant shut down for two years.”

Even worse, the accumulation of nuclear material in Hanford’s tanks could create highly combustible hydrogen gas pockets. “You get enough [hydrogen] and some spark source and you get an explosion,” MIT nuclear engineer Michael Golay told Scientific American, explaining what had precipitated Fukushima and Three Mile Island, the worst nuclear accident in United States history.

An outright nuclear explosion is highly unlikely, but possible. The radioactive material at the bottom of the mixing tanks could cause the splitting of radioactive atoms known as fission, similar to what happens in a nuclear bomb (blessedly, on a much smaller scale). That would be an unspeakable disaster, one that would almost certainly endanger workers at the Pre-Treatment Plant, while also shutting down the site. It might not kill a lot of people, but it would cost hundreds of millions dollars and take years to clean up.

The risks of a Fukushima-type disaster are incredibly slight, and those who make the comparison caution against a literal interpretation of their warnings. Yet the consequences of such a mishap would be so catastrophic that it cannot be allowed to happen. The Tokyo Electric Power Company was not worried about an earthquake causing a tsunami, and that tsunami in turn flooding and disabling a nuclear power plant on the eastern coast of the island of Honshu. Much later, a panel would find “collusion” between the Fukushima Daiichi plant operators and government regulators, as well as “ignorance and arrogance” and a “disregard for public safety.”

Tamosaitis calls Hanford an example of “corporate welfare,” in which Bechtel is stringing along the federal government as it moves completion dates further and further into the future, all for the supposed sake of the very safety issues it has repeatedly ignored. As long as nothing horrific happens, he says, the money will flow. Tamosaitis sums up Bechtel’s strategy as “delay, delay, delay, deny.”

Recall that Tamosaitis is a spurned and clearly bitter former employee, but plenty of evidence supports his claims. His first seven years at Hanford were challenging. The last three were close to unbearable, pitting him against his superiors, who actively conspired to marginalize and discredit his work.

In early 2010, as Tamosaitis and his team were still grappling with the mixing problem, Hanford got a new manager: Frank Russo, a Bechtel vice president who had spent his entire professional career with the corporation, having worked just about everywhere from Iraq to Idaho. Russo’s objectives were clear from emails during his first four months on the job: meet a mid-year DOE bonus, potentially worth $6 million, and secure another $50 million of annual funding from Congress.

Tamosaitis, with his persistent nagging about the balky flow of nuclear sludge, stood in the way of that massive payday.

Hanford2 A sign warning of radioactive contamination dangles from a fence at the ‘C’ Tank Farm at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Ted S. Warren/AP Images

[Full article-Newsweek]