Protecting Our Region From Hanford’s Spreading of Contamination and From Being Used (Again) as a National Radioactive Waste Dump

by: Posted on: October 15, 2011

By Gerry Pollet, JD.  Gerry Pollet is Executive Director of Heart of America Northwest, a 16,000 member citizens’ group which is widely respected as the region’s largest citizens’ watchdog group for the cleanup of America’s most contaminated area: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, through which the Columbia River flows for fifty miles in Central Washington.


Editor’s Note: Read below to hear from Gerry Pollet, one of the leading environmental lawyers fighting to clean up and prevent Hanford—where nine inactive Plutonium reactors and one operating reactor reside—from being used (again) as a national radioactive waste dump. High Level Nuclear Wastes at Hanford, the U.S.A.’s first full scale nuclear reactor, are leaking into local groundwater in the Tri-Cities region and migrating into the Columbia River.

Enough Plutonium to make more than 125 nuclear weapons is in the ground at Hanford. At Hanford, the Columbia River flows past ten reactor sites and thousands of contaminated soil sites for fifty miles before the River flows down the Columbia Gorge and past Portland. Located in Washington’s Tri-Cities region, Hanford consists of nine Plutonium production reactors, which are shut, and one operating commercial reactor.


Hanford was created during WW II as part of the Manhattan Project. Its place in the Project was to provide a location to build the first, and totally untested, full scale nuclear reactor. The Army sought a location with lots of cooling water (the Columbia River), isolation, and available electrical power (from the Grand Coulee dam). The Plutonium for the first Atomic Bomb – the Trinity test in New Mexico – and for the Nagasaki bomb was extracted from reactor fuel removed from that first reactor. To extract Plutonium required melting down the fuel rods in acid and chemically extracting tiny amounts of Plutonium (from the rods) while leaving massive quantities of liquid High Level Nuclear Wastes behind.


Over a million gallons of the most deadly chemical and radioactive waste created on the planet, liquid High Level Nuclear Wastes, have leaked from massive underground tanks and are moving far more rapidly to groundwater and the Columbia River than the federal Energy Department (USDOE), which runs Hanford, claimed was possible, until recently. Indeed, they insist now that the waste won’t move as far as monitoring shows it already has.


Rather than clean-up, USDOE’s plans are best described as “cover-up”. USDOE proposes to leave all these wastes in the ground—while proposing to add even more waste to Hanford by using Hanford (again) as a national radioactive waste dump. USDOE is now proposing to use Hanford to bury extremely radioactive waste from other nuclear weapons plants and from decommissioning nuclear reactors, in addition to a prior decision to bury 17,000 truckloads of radioactive and chemically mixed wastes from the nuclear weapons complex.


A woman with grey hair stands up in the middle of the room at a hearing on Hanford. She receives loud applause from the crowd overflowing the available chairs in a Portland hotel ballroom with her question: “If I have to remove the underground oil tank from my home under federal and state law, why does the federal Energy Department think it shouldn’t have to remove tanks with radioactive and toxic wastes?”


The scene is from a Portland hearing in May 2011 on the federal Energy Department (USDOE’s) plan to use Hanford as a National Radioactive Waste Dump for extremely radioactive and toxic wastes. Outside the Tri-Cities, which is home to Hanford, this is the only hearing the USDOE agreed to hold in the Northwest.


On behalf of the Portland City Council, Mayor Sam Adams’ testimony drew a standing ovation:


“The Portland City Council opposes the transportation of nuclear waste through our region to the Hanford site…


“(F)uture receipt of off-site waste at Hanford is projected to have significant adverse long-term impacts on the groundwater, which ultimately impacts the Columbia River. Moreover, the transfer of nuclear waste through Oregon on its way to Hanford poses an unacceptable risk to the health of Portland citizens.”


Trucking those wastes to Hanford is likely to result in numerous cancer deaths along the truck route, even if there are no accidents or terrorist attacks because some of the wastes are so “hot” that their radiation will go right through the shielding and dose people stuck in traffic near them, in schools, homes and businesses along the truck routes.


Anger at the Energy Department throughout the Northwest is stoked by what the public views as a callous disregard for health and the environment. Mayor Adams’ citation of a 2008 USDOE study illustrated this frustration:


“(T)he USDOE estimated 816 cancer deaths to residents along shipping routes, and to people in traffic near the trucks, from a similar 2008 proposal for nuclear waste shipment. That estimate is based on radiation doses for an adult male and does not account for the possibility of traffic accidents, leakages, or acts of terror along the transfer route. The City of Portland adamantly opposes any alternative in the [Greater-Than-Class C Low Level Radioactive Waste Environmental Impact Statement] (GTCC EIS) that poses such incalculably high risk to the health of our citizens and surrounding environment.


The threats of rolling radioactive trucks or migrating leaks into the Columbia River are not off in the future.


Right now, levels of radioactive Strontium 90 flow into the Columbia River from groundwater contaminated from the massive amounts of radioactive and chemical wastes remaining in the soil and groundwater adjacent to the River. The groundwater seeps along those fifty miles of the Columbia River’s shoreline at levels over 1,000 times the drinking water standard. That standard is set at a level at which one adult in every ten thousand who drink the water daily would die of cancer. Our children are three to ten times more susceptible to get cancer from the same radiation dose as an adult is.


Additional risks include those from wild fires sweeping over the contaminated soil areas, explosions or other releases of radioactive and chemical wastes that have been stored – illegally – for years and from the tanks of other facilities. Federal and state hazardous waste laws bar toxic wastes from being stored for over a year, especially when the waste constituents are unknown. Yet, USDOE has been able to get away with storing uncharacterized wastes for many years.


What Can You Do?


With over 15,00 members across the region, Heart of America Northwest is the region’s leading citizens’ group working for the cleanup of Hanford and to stop use of Hanford as a national radioactive waste dump.


We are currently organizing to require that the Energy Department and its regulators, US EPA and Washington Ecology, hold public meetings around the region about how to improve the Hanford Cleanup Public Involvement plan and provide better, actually informative, notices to the public of how proposals may impact health and our environment. If the agencies continue to refuse to hold official meetings on revising the Hanford Cleanup Public Involvement Plan (Yes, agencies want to adopt a new Public Involvement Plan with no public meetings!), we expect to hold our own meetings in Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and Hood River to take public comment in October and November.


Early next year we will be organizing to get hundreds of people to go to hearings and send in comments insisting that Washington State use its hazardous waste permit authority to bar USDOE from adding more waste to Hanford. Federal hazardous waste and cleanup laws allow Washington State to bar USDOE from adding any more wastes with hazardous waste, including radioactive mixtures. Contamination will not be cleaned up for fifty years under USDOE’s plans.


Heart of America Northwest lobbies Congress for cleanup funding and compliance, organizes most of the turnout for public hearings on Hanford across the region, and is in court to require clean-up, not cover-up, of radioactive and chemical wastes.


You can sign up to receive our award winning “Citizens’ Guides” describing how proposals – such as trucking nuclear waste to Hanford – affect our Northwest health, the Columbia River, and the environment. Visit our website: to receive alerts, links and updates, such as radiation levels following Fukushima or follow us via Facebook: or, @hoanw on Twitter.


You can also watch our latest workshop presentation on USDOE’s plan to abandon Plutonium, instead of cleaning it up on You Tube:


A few minutes of your time every year can protect the health of our children and future generations.


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