Cleaning up nuclear waste

Located in Washington State, Hanford is the nation’s largest nuclear cleanup site with 56 million gallons of radioactive waste sitting in old leaky underground tanks. There’s a plan to clean it all up. And our environmental reporting partner Earthfix has the story.

TRANSCRIPT

Located in Washington State, Hanford is the nation's largest nuclear cleanup site, with 56 million gallons of radioactive waste sitting in old, leaky underground tanks.

There's a plan to clean it all up, and our environmental reporting partner, EarthFix, has the story.

This is a gallon, and this is nuclear waste.

And this is 56 million gallons of nuclear waste.

It's toxic, radioactive, and is sitting in old, leaky tanks just a few hours upriver from Portland.

It's here at Hanford, where all that waste is polluting groundwater, which is seeping toward the Columbia River.

And after more than 20 years and $19 billion spent, none of it has been treated.

For decades, Hanford was America's plutonium factory.

It was one of the original Manhattan Project sites supplying the radioactive material at the heart of America's nuclear arsenal.

Over the course of Hanford's military lifetime, it was home to nine nuclear reactors used to irradiate uranium fuel rods creating plutonium.

That plutonium was then extracted with chemicals, processed, and shipped off to weapons factories.

Each step of that process produced radioactive waste, some of it liquid, some of it solid, some of it somewhere in between.

For decades, workers poured much of the liquid waste, hundreds of billions of gallons' worth, into the ground.

They dumped the rest, including solids and sludges, into underground tanks to be dealt with later.

And now it's later.

A patch of contaminated groundwater the size of Seattle lies under the site.

Those old tanks are deteriorating, and the official plan to clean it all up has serious problems.

The basic idea is to pump up and treat the groundwater, get the waste out of the tanks, and process it into glass logs.

The first big problem is that radioactive wastes can generate flammable gasses, which can build up in the tanks and treatment facilities and, if ignited... [ Explosion ] On top of that, some of the waste in the tanks still contains plutonium, which is heavy.

And as the waste is moved around, the plutonium could settle out, clump together, and start an uncontrolled chain reaction.

[ Siren blares ] That might not be such a big deal if workers could monitor and step in to prevent the accident, but the treatment process -- at least for the most hazardous waste -- has to happen in special rooms, called black cells, that are too radioactive for humans to enter.

According to the official plan, the machinery in those black cells has to work smoothly for 40 years with no human intervention.

If something goes wrong, there would be little workers could do to prevent hazardous waste from spreading around the site.

But the cleanup has made some progress.

The liquid waste in the oldest, leakiest tanks was transferred to newer tanks, and in 2015, workers treated 2 billion gallons of groundwater.

But the vast majority of contaminated groundwater is still there, and they haven't even started treating the actual waste in the tanks.

In fact, they haven't even finished building the treatment plant.

Construction was supposed to be done by 2007.

That slipped to 2011, then 2019, and recently, the deadline was extended again, to 2036, for the most dangerous waste.

Humans have never cleaned up a mess quite like the waste at Hanford.

And after years of delays, we don't know if the current plan will be up to the task.

That means that, without some breakthrough technology or new plan, those 56 million gallons of nuclear waste will likely continue to sit just hours upriver from Portland.