The canary in the reactor
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a "decrease of liquid level" in a single-shell tank at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. A liquid decrease is promising news for people taking diuretics or attempting to lose weight. Radioactive sludge leaking into the ground at a rate of 150 to 300 gallons per year (or "rate of loss of liquids" in Energy-speak) is not-so-good news.
The underground tank in question, T-111, classified as an "assumed leaker" in 1979, was built between 1943 and 1944. These massive receptacles were engineered to last approximately 20 years, which means the leaking tank's structural integrity became questionable around the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing. In 1995, something called interim stabilization (In English, a short-term fix) was completed. The process involves the removal of pumpable liquids.
The T-111's storage capacity is 530,000 gallons. There are 117 similar tanks at Hanford, the Energy Department reports.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a committed environmentalist, framed the issue as if it concerned drug trafficking. "Let me be clear: Washington State has a zero tolerance policy on radioactive leakage," Inslee said in a statement. Radioactive sludge, alas, yields to material science, not political science. And construction of the $12.3 billion facility to transform and stabilize the radioactive waste is several years behind schedule.
Inslee, building on the work of his predecessors dating back to Gov. Booth Gardner, is devoted to federal efforts to cleanup the nation's most contaminated nuclear site. He announced he is traveling to Washington this week to underscore his point. The T-111 incident should serve as the canary in the reactor, galvanizing Washingtonians and intensifying the call to get a move on.
Friday's news also spills light on the 586 square-mile Hanford Nuclear Reservation and its central role in the social, political and military history of the Pacific Northwest. The most original analysis is "Atomic Frontier Days, Hanford and the American West," by the UW's John Findlay and Bruce Hevly. Hanford transcends the overworked lesson of a distant federal government remaking the West. Findlay and Hevly offer an integrated narrative that weaves together community, culture, economics and ecology.
The Tri-Cities aren't Love Canal. They're urban centers with diversifying economies and a growing wine industry. At Hanford, the engineers and brainiacs who produced plutonium have given way to third-generation engineers and brainiacs charged with cleaning up five decades of waste.
Hanford is not an "over there" abstraction. Its future and the future of the American West are one.
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