The Free Market Can’t Clean Up This Nuclear Mess

November 11th, 2011 at 2:23 pm | 19 Comments |

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Eli Lehrer ably defends the Department of Energy, the flawed and unloved agency whose name fell away from Rick Perry’s lips when his neural network took an inopportune coffee break.

As Lehrer pointed out, about half of DOE’s budget is allotted for watchdogging our nuclear arsenal and cleaning up “legacy wastes” left behind by production of fissile materials and nuclear weapons. One of DOE’s cleanup projects is Hanford.

Not many people outside the Pacific Northwest know about Hanford, a 560-square-mile federal reservation in the sage steppe country of eastern Washington State.

Hanford is the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere. There’s not a chance in hell that any entity except the federal government could oversee and carry out the cleanup, which—if funding holds—will be completed when today’s toddlers are grandparents.

Hanford was the Manhattan Project site where physicists’ theories were turned into industrial-scale plutonium production. Starting with the historic “B” reactor, nine reactors and five processing “canyons” to chemically extract plutonium from irradiated uranium were built at Hanford. Pu-239 production carried on until 1987, when the last operating reactor was shut down.

What’s left behind to clean up?

-177 underground tanks containing vile combinations of radioactive and chemical wastes totaling 53 million gallons. At least one-third of the tanks have leaked an estimated 1 million gallons into the ground.

-Hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid wastes that entered the ground from cribs, ponds, injection wells, and French drains.

- Millions of tons of solid wastes that ended up in pits, trenches, and dumps.

-Leaking plumes from the tanks and the liquid wastes contain an all-star team of radioactive and chemical hazards—strontium-90, technetium-99, and carbon tetrachloride, to name a few. Down the gradient lies the Columbia River, the biggest river in the West.

What’s being done?

DOE is building capacity to pump and treat 150 million gallons of contaminated groundwater per month. Contaminated soil and cleanup debris will go into an onsite landfill the size of 52 football fields, which now holds 11 million tons and counting of low-level wastes. Eventually, reactor buildings and support facilities will be demolished.

The centerpiece of the cleanup is construction of a vitrification plant that will take the hellish tank wastes and imprison them in glass logs for eventual burial, perhaps at Yucca Mountain, perhaps somewhere else. Cost of the “vit” plant is $12.2 billion and likely to go up. No one can say for sure whether the vit plant will work because remediation on this scale has never been tried.

An unresolved question is the fate of the 177 tanks after they’ve been emptied. Leave them in place and monitor them for all eternity, or chop them up for disposal? Removing the tanks and ancillary structures would create a mound of waste totaling a billion cubic feet—enough to fill the New Orleans Superdome eight times over.

Estimated cost of emptying the tanks, vitrifying the wastes, and remediating the tank farms ranges from $34 billion to $261 billion. Where the final number falls depends on how the public and decision-makers answer the central question: how clean is clean enough?

DOE’s oversight of the mammoth cleanup job has been bedeviled by ongoing controversy over its competence. Some critics have suggested taking DOE off the job and turning the mess over to a federal corporation chartered for the sole purpose of carrying out the cleanup.

No one knowledgeable about Hanford, however, has seriously suggested turning the job over to a non-federal actor. No other entities could handle it, nor should they even if they could. For more than four decades, Hanford was a critical defense facility, defense is inarguably a federal duty, and the cleanup of the wastes that came with defense production is a federal responsibility.

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19 Comments so far ↓

  • Graychin

    I thought nuclear weapons were supposed to make us safer. Guess I was wrong.

    Whether it’s nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants, our attitude has always been that we can make and use lots of toxic crap, and then kick the can down the road on cleaning up our messes.

    • armstp

      You are one funny guy. I love your comments that make a mokery of all the conservative talking-points. They are so sad and ridiculous that the only thing one can do is make fun of them.

  • beemerron

    Something that should be mentioned; Hanford fronts about 50 miles of the middle Columbia River. Leaving it be is not an option.

  • He Loved Big Brother

    I demand simple solutions to complex problems!

  • Rob_654

    But I thought that the Free Market and Private Sector always does everything better…

  • rbottoms

    Why do you hate capitalism.

  • Ogemaniac

    Half the problem with Republicans is that they simply worship the “free market” ideology and refuse to admit that markets only work under a very narrow set of assumptions that are virtually never simultaneously true in the real world. All markets are significantly flawed, and there is much that can be done to improve them by using intelligent policy. Letting them run amok with their flaws uncorrected leads to disaster.

    If Republicans were a party of responsible government, focused on finding and fixing the flaws of markets, they could be a force for good, rather than a force for stupidity and evil. But as long as they keep worshiping a false idol, they only bring ruin.

  • jakester

    I heard Mr. Pinhead, aka Mark Levin, many times mock the DOE. Never once did he delve into any details like this yet he is supposed to be a deep thinker for the tea dreg set

  • midcon

    DOE has hired Bechtel National to execute the clean up at Hanford. Considering the situation there, BNI is doing a satisfactory, though costly, job. The choice is to either spend the money and clean it up (and prevent contamination of the Columbia River) or let things take their course. I was a member of a team reviewing that project earlier this year. My assessment was that it was being managed well. However, as with any project like this, there are multiple state, local, and federal agencies who all have something to say and requirements to levy on the project. Between the EPA, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, Washington State, et al, there are many masters to please and they all do not agree. They are making progress but it’s not going to be done anytime soon.

  • ottovbvs

    It’s a reasonable bet that few if any of the Republican candidates up there had ever heard of Hanford which in fact is one many, many govt supervised contaminated area clean ups in the US (although it’s probably the biggest one). The estimated number of contaminated sites is well north of 200,000 all of which involve federal agencies like the EPA (another Republican boogeyman), the energy dept, the interior department and state agencies. Look these people in the main are clueless and even the ones with a clue have to pretend they are clueless to satisfy the blind ignorance and prejudice of partisan audiences at these debates (who seem to cheer any inanity) and the wider circles of conservatives watching. Once they, or conservatives generally, start acknowledging that in fact across huge areas of our national life the govt is performing essential functions that are protecting the health and general economic and physical welfare of Americans then the entire government is the problem house of cards comes tumbling down.

  • mannie

    Send the mess to Texas.

    • laingirl

      Perry would do that; one of his buddies has the only license to accept it (at great cost I expect).

  • TJ Parker

    And let’s not forget the National Labs, research in nuclear physics and plasma physics and all that good stuff that the public sector doesn’t and can’t do. (They can’t. Its science but its classified.)

    Oh, and it nookyalar, not nuclear. Where have you been for the last 10 years?

  • Houndentenor

    This is just common sense. Business does a lot of things very well. Other things not so much. Business isn’t going to move into things where there’s no profit to be made (nor should they). How sad that we live in a world where ideology trumps common sense.

  • baw1064

    Why hasn’t John Galt invented some gizmo to convert all the radioactive materials to gold (which G. Gordon Liddy could then hawk on Fox)?

  • Chris Balsz

    Realistically, couldn’t this project and all other necessarily GOVERNMENT projects be administered by the Department of the Interior or Defense, saving us the cost of a Cabinet department?