By Adrian Monty
Radioactive waste has piled up at the Hanford, in Richland, Washington, since the production of plutonium began there in 1943 for use in the very first atom bomb, code-named “Trinity,” detonated outside Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the plutonium bomb, dubbed “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
The first round of single-shelled radioactive waste storage tanks on the site began leaking early in the 1950s, prompting the use of double-shelled tanks in the 1960s. These million-gallon tanks, 177 in total, house over 55 million gallons of low- to high-level radioactive waste, are prone to leaking, and are stored in a 150 foot deep football field-sized crater. Since the early 2000s, it has been the goal of the Energy Department to build a Waste Treatment Plant with the capacity to immobilize a large portion of the waste by mixing it with molten glass for permanent storage in a process called vitrification. The DOE’s plan is to start with low-level waste, including liquids separated from high-level radioactive waste in the double-shelled tanks, and to go from there.
On October 8, the 300-ton vitrification melter began heating up, the first step of the process, and the program had its first hiccups. The melter, designed to liquefy glass to be mixed with radioactive waste, is supposed to gradually heat to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit over a period of weeks. In the first attempt, the melter began to overheat, and workers had to halt heating after only two days, to figure out the next steps. The melter was still empty, so there was no danger to workers or the environment. Leaders at the site have acknowledged that this is a first, and they want to make sure the melter can get up to temperature and melt glass mixed with other materials before bringing radioactive materials into the picture. Vitrification has successfully stabilized radioactive wastes in the past but on a much smaller scale.
Meanwhile on August 9, Nagasaki Day, two tribes, nine agencies, and governors Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington sent letters to President Biden urging him to expand the budget for cleanup efforts at what has been called “the most toxic place in America.” In October, every Washington State Congressional leader, Democrat and Republican, followed suit with a letter of their own. As we go to print, they are still awaiting a response.
— Adrian Monty works with the Oregon State University Downwinder Project. She is an environmental journalist with a focus on atomic issues.