By Ben Shulman-Reed

Published May 17, 2017 by Hugh Gusterson in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Last week’s accident at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation should have come as no surprise.

On May 9, workers discovered a 20-foot-diameter hole where the roof had collapsed on a makeshift nuclear waste site: a tunnel, sealed in 1965, encasing old railroad cars and equipment contaminated with radiation through years of plutonium processing. Potential radiation levels were high enough that some workers were told to shelter in place while others donned respirators and protective suits as they repaired the hole.

The Hanford complex, which dates back to 1943, produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Half the size of Rhode Island, it is often described as the most contaminated place in the United States. Until its last reactor closed in 1987, it churned out plutonium for the roughly 70,000 nuclear weapons the United States built during the Cold War. As the historian Kate Brown documents in her book Plutopia, which explores the uncanny similarities between Hanford and its Soviet counterpart Ozersk, Hanford has been a slow-motion environmental disaster since its opening, constantly excreting radioactive contaminants into the air and water. More dangerous than the tunnels are the giant tanks of liquid nuclear waste: 177 of them containing 56 million gallons of radioactive soup whose composition is only approximately known. The contents of some have to be stirred periodically to prevent the formation of hydrogen bubbles that would cause the tanks to explode. One million gallons of this witches’ brew have already leaked into the groundwater from tanks that were built to last only 20 years. The US government projects that it will cost more than $107 billion to clean up the site, with remediation finished by 2060. Few knowledgeable people put much credence in either number.

It would be nice to say that Hanford is a unique canker on the US nuclear landscape, but it is not. It may be the most contaminated, but it is far from alone. At the Rocky Flats facility outside Denver, where workers fashioned Hanford’s plutonium into cores (or “pits”) for nuclear weapons, there were major fires in 1957 and 1969; each sent plutonium-laced plumes of smoke over nearby communities. Enough plutonium dust gathered in the facility’s ductwork that some worried about a spontaneous criticality event—that is, an accidental and uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Eventually President George H.W. Bush closed Rocky Flats in 1992 after an FBI investigation found that the facility was secretly (and illegally) burning nuclear waste in the middle of the night.

At Ohio’s Fernald plant, which processed uranium for the weapons complex, operators dumped radioactive waste into makeshift pits …read more