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Biotech Science

U.S. Nuclear Cleanup Carries Major Risks 522

Roland Piquepaille writes "New Scientist reports in this pretty alarming article that there is a 50-50 chance of a major radiation or chemical accident during the cleanup of the dirtiest nuclear site in the U.S. There are indeed lots of things to clean at the Hanford complex in Washington state: 67 tons of plutonium and 190 million liters of liquid radioactive waste stored in underground tanks. A third of them, dating from the Cold War, have already leaked 4 million liters in the environment, contaminating the groundwater and a river. Meanwhile, officials at the DOE, who'll spend $50 billion between now and 2035 on this cleanup, seem less worried than the different specialists interviewed by New Scientist. Please read this overview for selected quotes from the article and from the Hanford site. You'll also find a slide from the DOE showing the timeframe for the cleanup."
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U.S. Nuclear Cleanup Carries Major Risks

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:07PM (#9802215)
    I'm pretty sure it has caused more health problems in the U.S. than nuclear power has.
    • Newer coal plants trap most of the coal dust and many of the other polutants. They're actually getting much cleaner [].

      It's the old ones (especially in places like China) that are the problem.
      • by Politburo ( 640618 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @01:07PM (#9802968)
        From link (which is a 3 year old article): "See that," Berry says, pointing to the seeming nothingness pouring out of Polk's stack. "Someone can be sitting near a coal gasification plant and see nothing coming out of it. That's the goal." (In actuality, the clouds pouring from traditional plants are water vapor.

        While most clouds you see coming from stacks are simply water vapor, a coal fired boiler emits a lot of particulate matter, which is harsh on the lungs, especially to those with asthma or other respiratory problems. The EPA has been focusing more on PM in the past few years. Facilities are now required to report PM emissions at 3 levels: Total PM, PM10 (PM 10 microns or smaller), and PM2.5 (PM 2.5 microns or smaller). PM2.5 emission reporting was added just this year, as it has been learned over the past 5-10 years that PM2.5 is much more harmful than less fine particulates. Current control measures for PM are in the 99% removal range, assuming the equipment is properly maintained.

        Also, coal emits a lot more crap than oil or natural gas. By crap I mean trace amounts of nasty chemicals. Hydrochloric acid, hydroflouric acid, arsenic, mercury, lead, dioxins, etc. EPA's emission manual for coal combustion can be found here [].

        "Clean coal" may be a temporary measure as we begin to run out of natural gas and oil, but it is by no means a solution, as the CO2 problem is not solved.

        It's the old ones (especially in places like China) that are the problem.

        Yes, but the real problem is our reluctance to fund new energy initiatives and promote smart usage of energy. We waste outrageous amounts of energy in the USA. Research must not only be focused on new energy sources, but improved efficency in the transmission and use of that energy.
      • Newer coal plants trap most of the coal dust and many of the other polutants. They're actually getting much cleaner.

        It's the old ones (especially in places like China) that are the problem.

        Er, no. Especially if you think global warming is an issue. From the article you cite:

        "Berry admitted that carbon dioxide was spewing from the Polk stack, but you couldn't see it."


        Even so, compared with a typical coal-fired plant with modern pollution control devices, Polk produces 85% less nitrogen oxide and

    • There is an issue of severity and immediacy. You'll get cancer from coal power plants, but it'll take year of exposure, not a single jump in the river.

      I do agree with you, though.
    • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:15PM (#9802306)
      We don't compare the Hanford site to coal-fired plants because the main use of this facility was to produce nuclear weapons materials, not electrical power generation.
    • No kidding. Can any nuclear scientists comment here? AFAIK, Plutonium is a fairly innocuous problem. It's heavier than just about everything, so it doesn't float. It's not water soluble, and it primarily releases Alpha particles (a non-threatening form of radiation). Unless they're leaking something like Strontium-90, Iodine-129, or something fresh out of the reactor with a half-life of three months, then I'm not particularly worried. I'm far more worried about all that Lead and battery acid we're throwing
      • by networkBoy ( 774728 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:24PM (#9802422) Journal
        IAMA(nuke arms scientist)
        Plutonium is far more toxic than radioactive (as far as hazards go). What I mean by that is that it takes fall less PU to kill you by poisioning than required to cook you with radiation.

      • It's not water soluble, and it primarily releases Alpha particles (a non-threatening form of radiation)

        Not really correct: Alpha particles are stopped by a sheet of paper. But if you ingest plutonium or inhale it, then it's one of the most dangerous substances around.
    • by tiger99 ( 725715 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @01:23PM (#9803186)
      Very interesting point, and you may, or may not, be surprised to hear that in fact coal-burning industry, mostly power plants nowadays, has released far more uranium, thorium and radium (plus others?)into the atmosphere than the entire nuclear industry, and they continue to do so.

      This is because coal contains trace amounts of these elements, which are not in the form of particles, but are more likely distributed as individual atoms in individual molecules, maybe combined with carbon, certainly oxygen, and other elements. No known technology can take individual molecules of, say, uranium oxide, out of a chimney.

      Now this release of radionucleides has been going on since serious use of coal began around 1600-1700.

      Interestingly enough, in the UK there is often controversy over so-called leukaemia clusters, now these cases are tragic, but it is alleged that they are due to the nuclear industry, however close inspection shows that every single such cluster, with one exception, is in an area close to or downwind of a large coal-burning plant which either still exists, or was in use relatively recently. Some of these plants were lead smelters, which adds more uranium and other toxic elements. The one exception that I know of, where no industrial presence can be seen, is in Cornwall, around the village of Tintagel, and it is hardly surprising, because the local children no doubt play on their nice beach, and behind the beach are sea caves, with uranium compounds leaching out of the rocks. There will also be a high concentration of radon gas in such places, it mainly causes lung cancer by depositing daughter products in the lungs, but some of the daughter products may indeed cause leukaemia, and may be ingested in other ways.

      At a guess, I would say that similar conditions of radiation release due to coal burning, and the extraction of certain other minerals, will be found worldwide, as presumably volcanic activity had released lots of radionucleides into the atmosphere during the carbiniferous era, which would eventually have found their way into the vegetation, and hence the coal.

      In one particular part of the UK, when germanium transistors were in fashion, soot from factory chimneys was collected because it was rich in germanium, I think you will find that other elements (certainly selenium, which is toxic and carcinogenic, and also cadmium) can be found in significant quantities in some geographic regions.

      So, coal burning will release radioactive, toxic and carcinogenic substances, fortunately not plutonium of course, although in theory an occasional atom might be formed by natural processes. After all, there are these odd atoms of uranium embedded in the moderator, coal instead of pure graphite, so there is the remote chance that a neutron from a fissioning uranium atom might be slowed by the coal, and captured by another uranium atom. But the yield would be incredibly low.

  • Russia? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by garcia ( 6573 ) *
    I thought that Russia was going to make it their problem? Russia wants to allow the imports of nuclear waste into their country. I can't find it now but I thought that even though world-wide organizations are denouncing this thought the US was happy to ship some over there for permanent storage.

    So what happens if this stuff does leak out? Would that be considered a Superfund site? Funding for ecological disaster recovery was slashed by the current administration.

    Our world looks better and better ever
  • by bshroyer ( 21524 ) <bret&bretshroyer,org> on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:11PM (#9802255)
    I've got to start reading the submitter's name more often. Every time I click through on a story Roland's submitted, I feel I've been duped. You're welcome, RP.

    Is there any way I can configure my slash options to ignore his stories altogether?
    • Not only is this YARPA (Yet Another Roland Piquepaille Article) which annoys me like all the others, it fails to add any value to the original New Scientist piece, and introduces erroneous statements like (my emphasis):

      Over the last 50 years nine reactors at the 1500-square-kilometre site have produced 67 tonnes of plutonium for the US nuclear weapons programme. In 2002 the US Department of Energy (DOE) embarked on a 30-year, $50 billion clean-up, which includes emptying more than 190 million litres of liquid radioactive waste from 177 underground tanks.

      In this Hanford overview, the numbers are slightly smaller than the ones provided by New Scientist, but are still worrisome.

      Physical challenges at the Hanford Site include more than 50 million gallons of high-level liquid waste in 177 underground storage tanks,

      Let's Ask Google Calculator []. Oh. 50m gallons is 190m litres.

  • River (Score:5, Informative)

    by cyocum ( 793488 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:11PM (#9802256) Homepage
    "A third of them, dating from the Cold War, have already leaked 4 million liters in the environment, contaminating the groundwater and a river."

    I do not usually comment but I would like to remind everyone that the river mentioned would be the Columbia River since Hanford is within sight of the river and a large number of fish spawn there every year.

    • Re:River (Score:5, Informative)

      by forevermore ( 582201 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:22PM (#9802389) Homepage
      Mod the parent up! This river is not only a major spawning ground, but supplies irrigation water to many eastern Washington and Oregon farms, and has hundreds of people living on its banks (including big cities like Portland, OR).

      Hanford PR people claimed for years that it would take decades for their waste to filter into the Columbia, until some scientists pointed out that the waste had already been flowing into the Columbia for years.

    • Re:River (Score:4, Informative)

      by geomon ( 78680 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:50PM (#9802706) Homepage Journal
      Yep and there are also kraft paper mills, aluminum plants, power generation facilities (hydro dams) and orchards.

      That means you have dioxins, coal tar pitch, PCBs, and arsenic in the water that NEVER came from Hanford.

    • Re:River (Score:3, Funny)

      by DrEldarion ( 114072 )
      Radioactive fish! I can't wait for somebody to get bitten by one and then turn into an aquatic superhero.
  • 67 tons of Pu... (Score:5, Informative)

    by andreMA ( 643885 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:11PM (#9802261)
    ...was the lifetime production of the facility, not material to be cleaned up as implied.
  • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:11PM (#9802263)

    There are indeed lots of things to clean at the Hanford complex in Washington state: 67 tons of plutonium

    Actually, from the article, the 67 tons of Plutonium were the product of the Handford site, not a side-effect left littering the place.

    Note, before anyone starts whining about nuclear power not being clean, that Hanford isn't about nuclear power, but about nuclear weapons.

    • by MarkedMan ( 523274 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:42PM (#9802621)
      "Note, before anyone starts whining about nuclear power not being clean, that Hanford isn't about nuclear power, but about nuclear weapons."

      But its the same players. The consultants, contractors, etc, who gave the US the radioactive disaster that is Hanford are the same ones who are running reactors all over the US and the world.

      I used to be pro nuclear power but after witnessing the amaturish and dishonest reaction during a crisis at the nuke plant near Rochester NY (with 1 million in the greater metropolitan area), and having a very disturbing cocktail party conversation with the head of safety for a nuke plant in Louisiana, I started to investigate more. Whatever the benefits of the technology, the culture of nuclear power is one of lies, coverup and other forms of deceit.

      It's a shame, because judged only on technology nukes come out ahead.

      • I used to be pro nuclear power but after witnessing the amaturish and dishonest reaction during a crisis at the nuke plant near Rochester NY (with 1 million in the greater metropolitan area), and having a very disturbing cocktail party conversation with the head of safety for a nuke plant in Louisiana, I started to investigate more. Whatever the benefits of the technology, the culture of nuclear power is one of lies, coverup and other forms of deceit.

        Lying bastards are not unique to the nuclear power

      • War Emergency (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @02:14PM (#9803877) Homepage
        The operation at Hanford, and much of the early U.S. nuclear weapons program, was run on a "War Emergency" basis. That means that production was considered critical to the national security of the United States. If the plant was producing too much radioactive waste, or had other problems, too bad, we'll deal with it later. If we didn't produce enough nuclear weapons to counter Soviet aggression and expansionism, pollution was going to be the least of our problems.
        • Re:War Emergency (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Vellmont ( 569020 )

          If we didn't produce enough nuclear weapons to counter Soviet aggression and expansionism, pollution was going to be the least of our problems.

          Yah, we'd only be able to destroy the Soviet Union 4 times over instead of 8 times over. I'm sure the extra destructive capability was such a greater deterrant than what we already had.

          Do you honestly think the Soviets would attack us, knowing they'd still have their country destroyed? An H-bomb going off in each of your major cities will destroy your civilizat
    • by Fnkmaster ( 89084 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @01:04PM (#9802931)
      Yet another Roland Piquepaille submission. The point of the submission wasn't to inform us, but to direct people to his blog. This guy has been doing this like crazy to pimp his blog site for the last few weeks, if not longer (I've only recently noticed it). This is evidence of why we should be able to mod stories posted down - this Piquepaille guy ought to be banned from further submissions until he stops pimping his lame, theme-stolen blog site and trying to get hits on the ads he runs there.

      His blog posts are usually quite uninformative and rather poorly written too. An overview with selected quotes from the article? So now he's summarizing for /.ers who are too lazy to read the article. I can't believe Hemos posted this crap submission without at least clipping out the lame blog link.

  • by abh ( 22332 ) <> on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:12PM (#9802272) Homepage
    The river is the Columbia River, an important transportation and power supply for the region.

    I live downstream. Would you like to shake any of my three hands?
  • Decommisioning (Score:2, Interesting)

    by pklong ( 323451 )
    Look here For a video [] covering the decommisioning of a small experimental Oxford reactor. Very Very scary (especially pushing graphite blocks into a shredder with no more protection than blue gloves!
    • I am not a nuclear engineer, but I suspect that you aren't one, either. It seems plausible to me that one could safely handle irradiated graphite with just blue latex gloves. The typical radioactive emissions from carbon isotopes are alpha and beta particles, which don't even penetrate skin and thus pose little to no carcinogenic risk. The blue gloves probably aren't even for radiation protocol--they're probably just to keep their hands from getting dirty with graphite dust.
  • Bet the Hotels in that area are pretty cheap!

    Plus glow in the dark showers!!

    Book me now!
    • No in-room coffee maker need either. Just place your cup on the ground for a minute. Voila!
    • Friend of mine worked there for Bechtel for a number of years. After the foldup, he couldn't give his house away. Bad spot when you owe $50,000.00 on a hpouse now worth $0.50. Luckily, he had inherited the old home place, which he moved his family back into.
      • Re:Cheap houses (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward
        I grew up in this town. Surprisingly, the population is incredibly pro nuke. The town is booming now, due to the fact there is so uch waste to clean up.

        My high school mascot was a mushroom cloud.
  • Necessary evil (Score:4, Informative)

    by cyberzephyr ( 705742 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:13PM (#9802285) Journal
    Considering the fact that the material has to be moved, every consideration must be made to properly secure the material from accidents and theft.

    DOE is more than capable of doing this and have done so for many years. Admittedly there have been a few problems but it never started a real situation of calamatious proportions.

    I almost signed up to work for DOE in this team capacity after i got out of the Army as a RANGER and i was very impressed with the security, armament and professionalism these folks have at hand. I just did not like the hours.

    +++Warning to any fool that thinks it's easy to steal radioactive material from one of these teams. You'll die twice before you get to pull your trigger once!+++

    • by LordPixie ( 780943 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @03:03PM (#9804402) Journal
      DOE is more than capable of doing this and have done so for many years. Admittedly there have been a few problems but it never started a real situation of calamatious proportions.

      Last I checked, the DoE ran the Pantex nuclear weapons plant []. The same site with some obscene safety issues []. Accidentally drilling into the core of a nuclear device resulted in the evacuation of the entire plant. Securing a warhead with duct tape increased the chances of a flat out nuclear explosion. And that's ignoring the clichéd "OMG THREE MILE ISLAND" commentary.

      +++Warning to any fool that thinks it's easy to steal radioactive material from one of these teams. You'll die twice before you get to pull your trigger once!+++

      Perhaps you reached this conclusion because the security teams were cheating during their security drills [] ? Cheating. for twenty years. It's not too hard to look impenetrable when you know the exact building and wall [] where an attack will take place. A DoE whistleblower admitted to a 50% success rate [] for security tests. Special forces teams were able to penetrate Los Alamos [] and wander off with enough material to create a nuclear bomb. Even an freakin' journalist was able to sneak into Los Alamos []. There are plenty of other issues raised [] over at the Project On Governmental Oversight []. Again, that's ignoring all the major security issues with CREM's going on over the last month.

      Now, you're absolutely right in the fact that we need to get that waste cleaned up. But thinking that the DoE, NNSA, or the US government on the whole is "more than capable" is bullshit. We're flirting with disaster. If we take the outlook that everything is fine and dandy, we're going to quickly hit the point where someone will cause a situation of calamatious proportions.

  • So, clean it up. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:13PM (#9802287)
    there is a 50-50 chance of a major radiation or chemical accident during the cleanup of the dirtiest nuclear site in the U.S.

    And a 100% chance of a major radiation or chemical accident if they don't. So this really looks to be a non-issue.
  • Tough job (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jbeaupre ( 752124 )
    I was interviewed for 3 different jobs doing cleanup at Hanford around 10 years ago. Sort of glad I didn't take any. Talk about a thankless dirty job (we would have been using remote methods, but still). Anyway, two points: a) pollution from nuclear is comparable to pollution from other energy sources. Lead, polonium, mercury, etc just get spread thinner with other methods. Nuclear keeps it concentrated. Call it "choose your poison." Even windmills have been implicated in killing endanged animals (
  • Question... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Xentax ( 201517 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:14PM (#9802292)
    So, is this all coming from plants that were producing weapons-grade material?

    What I'm getting at is, how much of this waste is comparable (in terms of which specific materials, and in what volumes) to what a nuclear powerplant would produce?

    I'm not trying to diminish the magnitude of the mess or the impact it has on the area, but I can already see people taking this and running in the wrong direction with it - namely, that every nuclear power plant will produce this sort of mess over time. I *believe* this is the exception rather than the rule, because this site was/is producing weapons material rather than electricity, but it'd be great if someone with hard data could confirm/invalidate that...

    • Re:Question... (Score:3, Informative)

      by timothyf ( 615594 )

      I did a short research paper [] on Hanford, so I think I might be able to answer this a bit.

      The problems at Hanford are mainly due to one of two things: age (some of the reactors and processing plants date back to WWII, when the effects of radioactivity was still not well understood) and purpose (Hanford was designed to extract Plutonium (Pu); only one of its reactors ever produced electrical power, and that was a secondary purpose)

      First off, age. Hanford was built in WWII with exceedingly great haste, and

    • The production and extraction of plutonium uses a very different type of reactor than the Pressurized Water Reactors that are used for power generation in much of the world. A lot of the waste at Hanford isn't due to the reactor operation per se, but rather the chemical extractions that are necessary to recover the plutonium. These extractive processes generate a lot of waste chemicals (like acids that have been used to dissolve fuel) that are contaminated with hot particles. That's the origin of the li
  • why worry about it? (Score:3, Informative)

    by jest3r ( 458429 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:15PM (#9802316)
    Plutonium doesn't sound all that bad ...

    Despite being toxic both chemically and because of its ionising radiation, plutonium is far from being 'the most toxic substance on earth' or so hazardous that 'a speck can kill'.

    On both counts there are substances in daily use that, per unit of mass, have equal or greater chemical toxicity (arsenic, cyanide, caffeine) and radiotoxicity (smoke detectors).

    more: []

    • That site doesn't give any numbers. This one [] does, and while it's much less toxic than some substances, a cup of coffee has ~200mg of caffeine in it...

      Ingestion of plutonium

      For acute radiation poisoning, the lethal dose is estimated to be 500 milligrams (mg), i.e. about 1/2 gram. A common poison, cyanide, requires a dose 5 times smaller to cause death: 100 mg. Thus for ingestion, plutonium is very toxic, but five times less toxic than cyanide. There is also a risk of cancer from ingestion, with a letha

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:17PM (#9802335)
    I don't live anywhere near there.
  • FUD (Score:5, Insightful)

    by D3 ( 31029 ) <> on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:19PM (#9802361) Journal
    Beware the FUD that comes from articles like this. Last night on 60 minutes they ran an article about the Nevada Yucca mountain site. Totally one sided and full of FUD. At one point they interviewed a guy who said there would be 300 foot long tractor trailer trucks "the length of a football field" hauling this through people's neighborhoods. Last I checked, tractor trailers are 80 feet long. Just lots of sloppy reporting without proper fact checking.
    • Re:FUD (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Rorschach1 ( 174480 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:56PM (#9802809) Homepage
      There's a 304 foot trailer [] on its way to my location at the moment. I've never heard anyone suggest using a monster like this for nuclear waste, though. The shipping containers I've seen have been much smaller than that.
    • Re:FUD (Score:4, Insightful)

      by James Lewis ( 641198 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @01:26PM (#9803217)
      I saw that as well, and while I think the debate was heated and some of the people they interviewed stretched things a bit, the main points are valid. It was NOT one sided, they interviewed the DOE director and he had plenty of chance to present his side of it. He's not stupid, he KNOWS exactly why 60 minutes would be interviewing him, and that it wouldn't be favorable. His arguement was basically... well we already truck toxic waste! So trust us. Kust because we will be hauling more than ever before, doesn't mean something will happen. Right. It is going to take something like 25 years to get all of this stuff to Yucca mountain, constantly trucking it around the country. The main arguement for Yucca mountain is that it is a more "secure" place to put all this stuff, and is far away from a major population. But to GET it there, it will be made incredibly vulnerable to attack, and we'll be driving it through cities. Instead of spending all this money on one site whose solution is worse than our current problem, we should be spending it to make sure the sites we have are made more secure.
  • RTFA (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Spl0it ( 541008 ) <> on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:19PM (#9802362) Homepage
    Guys, this is a site that has spent most of its existance producing chemicals,etc.. weapons. This is not a nuclear power plant site. Please read the article and stop modding people as informative for saying nuclear power isn't clean the article is not about nuclear power.
  • Nuclear waste leaks (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Grym ( 725290 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:20PM (#9802366)

    I'll admit, I only know a little about the storage of nuclear waste, but can someone PLEASE explain how it could possibly be so difficult to keep the stuff from leaking?

    It's not like these containers are sitting outside exposed to the elements. They're, AFAIK, stored underground in secure facilities.

    People make it sound like the government spends millions of dollars to develop these high-tech facilities and then just haphazardly sprays the stuff into old, rusty oil-drums. Surely this isn't the case.... right...?


    • We store acids in glass beakers because the acids don't eat the glass. The problem with radioactive "waste" is that the radiation acts to wear out the container over the long term. Right now I think we mostly mix the waste in with glass, which is better than just pouring it into a metal drum because the metal drum would wear out faster (than glass).

      Radioactive materials are sometimes called "hot"; they can be warm to the touch; this comes from the fact that as decay occurs particles come shooting out of the nucleus. These particles can hit other nuclei and jostle molecules around.

      IIRC, the most recent containment technology is based on storing the "waste" in crystals, eg Zircon. The upswing of crystal storage is that the "hot" material in the center of the crystal degrades the inner part of the crystal, which reacts by forming a "wall" instead of cracking or oozing. Kind of like when you crumple a piece of paper, and there's a limit to how much smaller you can make it by squeezing. Okay, maybe that's a poor analogy, since the "squeezing" comes from the inside, but you get the idea.

      Here's a link. []

      FWIW, if we had a space elevator, would anyone object to putting nuclear plants on it? It's not in anyone's backyard, and it's well placed to sling the crud into space... if we can find a target. I say Mercury.

      Nuclear is one option we should pursue. We should also keep working on bio-fuelcells and wind/wave. It all comes from the sun (well, A sun...) anyway. This is all going to be moot once we bootstrap a stellar economy.. there's more methane and natural gas to be had than well, even humans could waste (okay, maybe not, but there's a lot).

    • by Animats ( 122034 )
      Plutonium is made by transmutation in a nuclear reactor. Transmutation produces not just plutonium, but a whole range of transuranic elements. These are then separated chemically.

      Both uranium and plutonium extraction are very messy processes from a chemical engineering standpoint. They involve highly corrosive materials, including fluorine and acids. During the chemical processing, the corrosives become mixed with radioactive byproducts. So you get liquid mixtures which are both corrosive and radioact

    • This is a weapons site, so they were going as quickly as possible to beat the soviets. There was no time (so it is said) to handle this properly, so they just extracted the plutonium and put the rest of the liquid waste in large tanks underground. This went on for decades. Surprise, surprise, several decades later it was found that some of the waste spilled here, a little leak there, etc....

      It's not hard to properly handle if the site was setup to handle it properly in the beginning. Unfortunately, haste m
    • by hakioawa ( 127597 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:59PM (#9802864)
      IAAHG ( I am a hydrogeologist ), or at least was an one point. People do not understand the effects of time on engineerd materials. Most engineered materails have a usefull life of a few decades or less. You new roof is water tight today, but come back in 50 years and it will leak like a sive.

      The uinderground environment is a hostile one. There water continually percolating through the ground. This water may or may not be acidic, and may or may not be under perssure. Almost no rock is impervious. It may only leak a little but over 100s or 1000s or yeah a little becomes a lot.

      Anything will leak. The questions are:
      -At what rate
      -And where will the leakage go
      -What happens when some idiot archeaologist 500 years from now opens it up?

    • by cluckshot ( 658931 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @01:11PM (#9803020)

      Having an Uncle who for some years was in charge of the cleanup at Hanford and noting that he lives in Kelso I would tend to discount the FUD a lot. (About 99.999999999% or more.) Having two other Uncles who were reactor operations officers for US Nuke Subs makes me have a bit of family based info on the topic. I just am not as worried as most people are because I know generally what the problem is and how big it is.

      To be sure the mess at Hanford is a serious mess. It involves largely the chemicals used to refine the various elemements after reactor actions. The reason they liked plutonium for bombs is that it could be bred out of lesser stuff and was easily chemically isolated. This gave rise to a lot of radioactive chemical wastes which bluntly were pretty reactive stuff.

      The problem was storage was at best using technology we had at the time rather than trying to deal perminanently. The problem is that many of these chemical wastes are liquid and they are stored in containers that are failing or have started to fail.

      The containers in many cases were about equal to swimming pools or to 55 gallon drums. Another problem is some of these elements migrate quite easily through barriers. They form all sorts of funny deposits which if struck are prone to catch fire.

      With all of this said, the whole problem is one more of time and effort than danger. The location is really pretty unlikely to see a lot of migration outside Hanford and if it does go into the Columbia River it will be diluted well below any level of concern. The river is not small. At nearly 100,000 CFS flow and shortly diluted to 200,000 CFS average flow, this stuff is gone... gone... gone.

      To explain a bit more, the problem here is largely one of timing and events. Most of this waste developed right during and shortly after WW2. Shall I say that priorities and for that matter knowlege have changed in the intervening years.

      Actually the biggest problem in the cleanup owes to the need not to actually create more contaminated waste than absolutely necessary while doing the clean up.

      • by Liora ( 565268 )
        While your post is interesting and somewhat credible, I disagree with your statement that if it does go into the Columbia River it will be diluted well below any level of concern. My dad used to work for Rockwell cleaning up the Hanford waste in the 80's (his job was in part to design ways of cleaning up the waste better), and then went on to work for PNNL. I grew up swimming in the Columbia River. When I was around fifteen he requested that we quit swimming in the river because he had access to informat
  • by ryanwright ( 450832 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:20PM (#9802374)
    This entire article is based on a study by one person, no doubt with a political agenda.

    I've lived next to Hanford since I was 3 years old, and work a couple of miles from the nuke plant. I've toured the site many times. I've followed local news, which reports on every boring little detail since they have nothing better to do, my entire life.

    Are there problems? Sure. I remember when the single walled tanks started leaking, and they pumped everything into new double-wall tanks. Will there be problems in the future? Sure. Will those problems affect me? No. The accidents that take place may be major to the people working on that particular project, but are not catastrophic in the grand scheme of things.

    Look: The Hanford site has been operational for decades. The number of serious accidents is tiny, and said accidents have only affected the workers directly involved with that given project, not the rest of us. Yes, there are environmental concerns. No, they aren't as horrible as this article makes them out to be. We swim in and eat fish from the river. Our water comes from the river and local groundwater. None is contaminated enough to be detectible, let alone harm somebody. And I'm right here, a fraction of a mile downstream from the site.

    Even if the clean-up goes according to plan, Boldt claims there will still be 260 square kilometres of groundwater exceeding drinking water safety limits for over 10,000 years.

    He's full of himself. This is nothing more than paranoid scare tactics.
  • Well, this person is obviously deeply worried.

    However, he doesn't say what he wants. Does he want to delay the process, and why does he think that will lead to a better risk management than the current plant? Has he got any suggestions for how the risks can be mitigated?

    IMHO, Alvarez comes across as a person that does not want this cleanup to take place at all because that may lead to nuclear power not becoming mainstream if an accident occurs during the cleanup.

  • Half Right (Score:5, Informative)

    by geomon ( 78680 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:31PM (#9802492) Homepage Journal
    The production schedule for the new Vitrification Plant is far ahead of the basic science and engineering that form the foundation for its construction. Although I do not think that they will operate it with the risks for steam explosion that the article alludes to, it is more likely that the tax payers will pay more than the estimated $7B to construct it.

    You heard it right, folks - $7B.

    As for the groundwater contamination, that is nothing new. A tritium plume extending from the 200 Areas (where plutonium separation was performed) to the Columbia River has been in place since production started. It has fluctuated in size according to the politics of weapons production. The facilities have been shut down since the early 90's and are in various stages of decommissioning.

    The issue of iodine-129 is a sticky point. It has a long half-life and had been dumped to the soil column without too much worry about the transport properties of the nuclide. It travels at the same rate through the vadose and groundwater as nitrate. It is very mobile. The toxicity of the isotope is in come dispute. I can get a higher radiation dose from a urniary test than I can get from consuming contaminated Hanford groundwater. I can also dispose of the contamination through my municipal water treatment facility, a practice prohibited for Hanford contractors.

    As for the cesium-137 and strontium-90, those isotopes bind to soils high in the vadose and rarely reach groundwater. The are confined to zones near the surface, far from the river, and will be left in place to decay to background beneath low permeability covers. This is not a practice that the USDOE is forcing on the local community, but is a treatment alternative that is accepted by the USEPA and Washington Deparment of Ecology.

  • "a" river? (Score:5, Informative)

    by peacefinder ( 469349 ) * <> on Monday July 26, 2004 @12:51PM (#9802717) Journal
    The contaminated river in question is the Columbia. [] As the second-largest river (by flow) in the lower 48, and the largest to drain into the eastern Pacific ocean, I think it merits a mention by name.

    But then I'm a local, so I'm biased.

    Thankfully, the large flow means that the contamination is pretty dilute. The bad news, of course, is that said contamination flows through quite a few populated areas (including Portland), the river is used to irrigate and transport zillions of tons of wheat and other edibles, and lots of fish get pulled from the river and eaten.
  • The biggest problem with nuclear waste is the insistence on a perfect solution before anything is done. We've debated and studied for decades the merits of burying the stuff at Yucca Mountain, but in the mean time leave it sitting close to population centers in rusting storage drums.

    Anti Nuke groups actually love this situation because it insures to keep the crisis mounting, and discourages any future nuclear development. Then if and when a nuclear waste incident occurs they can point and say "I told you so."

    Why not go for better storage now, and keep looking for storage/disposal/reprocessing solutions to use later?

  • by Dr. Mu ( 603661 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @01:37PM (#9803320)
    One way to accelerate the solution to a problem is just to redefine it. Here's one such bright idea, hatched by the DOE: "If we reclassify some of the waste to a lower-level category, we don't need to clean it up. We can just cover it with grout and leave it." Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington State) has a lengthy discussion of this here []. Sen. Cantwell's efforts to short circuit this nonsense may have paid off, as this subsequent statement [] seems to indicate.
  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Monday July 26, 2004 @02:07PM (#9803797)
    Rocky Flats is the factory north of Denver where nuclear bombs were assembled until 1992. It is 12 years into the 14 year cleanup plan, and there hasnt been a major accident yet. The place will revert to a wildlife preserve (e.g. three-eye frogs). There was lots of doom-and-gloom too when evaluating its cleanup plan.
    • the rocky mountain news had a little article couple weeks back about this... namely... there are no red-tape areas in the flats any more, the contamination has been adjudged removed. they're ready to knock down the last buildings. the workers surely got their 45 arms around the issue there. but it's all been put into drums, and moved elsewhere, mostly near aitkin, south carolina, to old DOE production facilities there.

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.