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Battle Ready

The Waste That Remains From Arming Nuclear Weapons

Hanford has been in cleanup mode since the Cold War ended, yet the first of drop of waste has yet to be treated.

November 30, 2016

From our series, Battle Ready: The Military’s Environmental Legacy in the Northwest.

Hanford is the nation’s largest nuclear cleanup site, with 56 million gallons of radioactive waste sitting in old, leaky underground tanks just a few hours upriver from Portland. After more than 20 years and $19 billion dollars, not a drop of waste has been treated.

Hanford sits next to the Columbia River. It was one of the original Manhattan Project sites. Its nine nuclear reactors irradiated uranium fuel rods. That created plutonium, which was extracted with chemicals, processed and shipped to weapons factories. Each step produced radioactive waste.

The cleanup plan calls for the stored waste to be removed from the underground tanks and processed into glass logs.

But the plan has problems. Radioactive wastes can generate hydrogen and other gases that can build up. If ignited, they could explode inside tanks or treatment facilities. Some of the waste contains plutonium. It’s heavy and if it clumps together it could start an uncontrollable chain reaction.

The stored waste has to be treated in special rooms called black cells, which are too radioactive for humans to enter. The machinery in these black cells is supposed to operate for 40 years with no direct human intervention. If something goes wrong, the cells could be damaged.

Construction on the treatment plant was supposed to be completed in 2007. That slipped to 2011, then 2019. And now the deadline has been extended to 2036 for the most dangerous waste.

Based on research by Robert McClure and InvestigateWest, a nonprofit studio founded in 2009 to strengthen communities, engage citizens in civic life, and help set the policy agenda through powerful, independent journalism.


Battle Ready

MacGregor Campbell

MacGregor Campbell is a science writer and animator based in Portland. He has worked with OPB, PBS Education, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and Nieman Storyboard, among others. He is also a correspondent for New Scientist, a popular science weekly published out of the UK. There he writes news and features about cutting edge science and technology, and produces a monthly series of “Explanimation” videos. His first real job was teaching math in the city of Compton. More stories by MacGregor Campbell

Robert McClure

Robert is co-founder and executive director of InvestigateWest. At the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Robert exposed a major weakness in the Endangered Species Act and deficiencies in Puget Sound restoration efforts. His reporting on hard-rock mining won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism.

More stories by Robert McClure