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|Chapter 4 - Nuclear Weapons Complex's Toxic Releases|
Hanford Nuclear Reservation
Updates on tank leak problems at Hanford
What is it?
Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a Department of Energy facility in southeast Washington state. Nowadays, the 'Hanford Site' - as it is also called - is the home of a nuclear power plant and various national labs including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. From the early 1940s through the end of the Cold War, Hanford produced most of the plutonium fuel used to build the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
What role did it play?
In 1943, officials with the Manhattan Project picked a site near Richland, Washington, to build nuclear reactors that would create the plutonium fuel needed for two nuclear devices detonated by the U.S. in 1945: the 'Gadget' device (tested in New Mexico) and 'Fat Man' (dropped on Nagasaki). This factory initially consisted of three reactors and 540 buildings along the banks of the Columbia River that were purposed with producing the only thing a nuclear reactor was designed to efficiently produce: plutonium fuel. (The marketing of nuclear power generation in later decades became the lipstick on the pig - although the purpose of a reactor is to manufacture nuclear bomb fissile material, naive Americans were sold on the promises of government scientists (and General Electric and Westinghouse) that these plutonium fuel factories could safely create electricity that was 'too cheap to meter.')
Tell me about some of its toxic releases!
Hanford would later become the 'plutonium factory' of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, and the number of boiling-water reactors at Hanford grew to nine as the demand grew and grew for the plutonium needed for innumerable nuclear bombs built in the following decades. Over time, this plutonium factory created a severe environmental crisis. (Most of the nine reactors were shut down during the late 1960s, with the last one - the 'N reactor' - operating, and producing plutonium fuel for nuclear weapons, through 1987.) As cool water was pumped in and warm, contaminated water pumped out of these riverside reactors, radioactive pollutants floated down the river. (This is, incidentally, what all reactors do to waterways - radiation material leaked via corroded pipes and fuel cladding is not stored in perpetuity by reactor operators; it is dumped into our rivers, lakes and oceans as liquid effluent.) Hanford's water pollution traveled downstream to the city of Portland and up and down Oregon and Washington's coast, where seafood of nearly all types - ranging from oyster to ordinary fish, even whale - became, and to a point remains, contaminated. As documented in mainstream news stories from the 1960s to the present, seafood harvested from the Pacific Coast and the Columbia River has been found to contain contamination traceable to Hanford.
Since plutonium produced in a nuclear reactor is mixed in with other deadly radionuclides, extraction of plutonium from spent uranium fuel is no easy task. And, using technologies and processes of the early nuclear age, it became an extremely pollution-intensive and risky endeavor. During the plutonium extraction process, large amounts of radioactive noble gases and radio-iodines were released into the air in a manner that would be similar to the early phase of the Fukushima and Three-Mile-Island meltdowns; releases of radioactive gasses occurred without any filters or hold-up systems in place. (See our chart of radio-krytpon and -xenon isotope half-lives, distance quotients and more here).
Worse, at Hanford, extracted fuel rods sometimes caught fire - this also happened at Fukushima's spent fuel pools in March 2011. When fuel rods catch fire, they often burn at very high temperatures, high enough to volatilize (turn to steam) dozens of 'fission products' including radio-strontiums, radio-cesiums, and even plutonium - into the air. Once in the air over Hanford, vaporized, fire-lifted and gaseous radioisotopes would travel short and long distances. Areas downwind of Hanford - including Idaho, Montana, and parts of Oregon - were contaminated with an unknown assortment of carcinogenic and genotoxic radiopoisons.
Hanford's Green Run
One of the worst fallout incidents from Hanford was a radiation dispersal experiment like the RaLa tests at Los Alamos. In what has become known as the 'Green Run,' Hanford scientists, in 1949, intentionally released tens of thousands of Curies of radioactive Iodine-131, equal to hundreds of times the quantity of radioiodine released during the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. This was Hanford's largest single release of Iodine-131 in its history.12
Washington State's surface waters were the most radioactively polluted in the nation during the 1960s, containing dangerous levels of beta-emitting radionuclides. Why? Two reasons: Hanford emissions and Pacific Northwest rains. Rains brought down fallout from early 1960s hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific and Siberia that was lingering in the stratosphere. Compare the total beta activity in U.S. surface waters versus Washington's: August 1963, September 1963, October 1963, November 1963, December 1963, January 1964, February 1964, March 1964, April 1964, May 1964, June 1964, July 1964
The purpose of the 'Green Run' was to test methods of detecting radiation from Russia's nuclear weapons programs.13 Conducted during poor weather conditions, the plumes from the Green Run release stagnated in the local area for several days before a storm front dispersed it towards the north-northeast. Parts of the plume eventually drifted in various other directions for as far as 70 miles.
Although Hanford scientists who took radioactive readings after the experiment of vegetation, animals, water and in air had found radiation in three states hundreds of times above 'safety' levels, no resident anywhere in the Pacific Northwest was told (or warned). The reason was that Green Run was kept a government secret. In the 1980s, reports were made public in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that shed the first light on the once-secret experiment.
To this day, there are significant details about Green Run that are being withheld by the U.S. Department of Energy, which is an action (or lack of action) that violates the public's 'right to know'. What's there to know? For one, Green Run may have caused significant public health damage in the Northwest but this cannot be fully determined without revealing all there is to know about the experiment. Two, as Washingtonian Jim Thomas, who has written a book about Hanford, pointed out in an online article titled 'Hanford's Secret Green Run,' culpability is a concern. Thomas writes: "Even though it is nearly 60 years since the Green Run, the U.S. government refuses to make public the name of the person who authorized the experiment, his position and agency within the government, and the reason for the secret test."
In mid-December 2010, The Spokesman-Review, a Washington newspaper, ran an article14 about a married couple in their 70s in the town of Chattaroy, Washington, that was found dead in their trailer. The police found a suicide note placed on the couple's nightstand, along with a shotgun at the foot of the bed 'between the couple's feet,' and two shotgun casings, shells, and an empty bottle of hydrocone. The hydrocone was prescribed to the wife, Harriet, who had written as the motive in the suicide note her ongoing health problems, which included fibromyalgia and chemical and food sensitivities that she blamed on exposure to Hanford emissions when growing up in an area south of the federal nuclear facility. Harriet and her husband, Warren, who tried to commit suicide two months earlier 'by overdosing on medication,' according to a spokesman for the Spokane County Sheriff's Office, died from gunshot wounds to the chest. The article noted that Harriet was one of roughly 2,300 people who sued major contractors for exposure to Hanford fallout. The group of plaintiffs - sometimes referred to as the 'Hanford downwinders' - has experienced a series of setbacks in their legal attempts in court battles that have raged on for over a decade.
12 These Green Run plumes were emitted from the T-plant at Hanford. The dates of the release were December 2 - 3, 1949.
13 Specifically, the goal was learn how to pinpoint the location of Russia's plutonium-producing plants using Air Force monitoring equipment.
Why did so much Iodine-131 escape during the Green Run experiment? It involved a processing "run" of uranium fuel that was cooled after a much shorter time (16 days) than normal after leaving the reactor, and so its radiation ingredients, primarily Iodine-131, had less time to decay and was 'hotter' than had it been if normally processed. Also, during the experiment, 'scrubber' filters (pollution control devices normally used to remove an estimated 90 percent of the radioiodine from the effluent gas) in Hanford's nuclear stacks were purposely switched off.
14 Article titled 'Deputies Say Deaths May Be Suicides.' The couple was found dead on December 10th.