Hanford Problem Worse Than We Knew
by Editorial Board
Chinook Observer, July 13, 2010
Referring in print to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation as America's Chernobyl is a pretty good way to get a call from Hanford's press office, which is understandably anxious to avoid comparison with the Soviet reactor disaster. But according to the latest analysis, Chernobyl may start calling to complain about being lumped together with Hanford.
This is because the amount of deadly plutonium buried near the Columbia River in southeastern Washington state is three times what the U.S. government has previously estimated. Highly cancer-causing even in microscopic quantities, it is now thought that nearly 26,000 pounds of the bomb-making material was discarded as waste at Hanford.
After working on the cleanup for more than 20 years, the U.S. Energy Department still hasn't officially determined the exact extent and condition of contaminated soil and ground water at the 560-square-mile federal facility. It takes freshly made plutonium 24,000 years to lose half its radioactivity. It remains poisonous to life even longer.
As it stands, the cleanup aims to mop up or entrap 99 percent of this plutonium. This would be a remarkable achievement but would leave 260 pounds unaccounted for - easily enough to migrate into the river and ocean. A fascinating story in the New York Times, describes many of these issues.
In some respects, dealing with this profoundly awful problem is beyond current technology. Maybe we'll have to wait until swarms of nano-sized robots can burrow through the soil to pluck plutonium. Until then, we owe it to our distant descendents to corral the bulk of it as close as possible to its source. This is bound to be less expensive, in terms both of money and life.
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