Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nuclear Power: How Did We Get from "Too Cheap to Meter" to "Too Expensive to Clean Up"?

Hanford B Reactor complex in the 1950s
I grew up in western Washington.  We were aware that our homes, schools and factories (Boeing, Kenworth, Pacific Car and Foundry, the ship yards, etc.) were powered by the series of dams that were being built in eastern and southeastern Washington, along the Columbia River.  Electricity was very, very cheap by national standards.

At the same time, largely as a result of the first of the Columbia River's dams, Grand Coulee, massive amounts of electricity were diverted to a secret U.S. Government site along the Columbia's Hanford Reach.  The Hanford Works were created initially to provide Plutonium for the earliest atomic bombs.  Eventually, Hanford created more plutonium than any other single site in the world.

As a result of the plutonium making process and other nuclear experiments and production there, Hanford began to accumulate large volumes of nuclear waste, liquid and solid.  Beginning in the late World War II period, the wastes were put in containment tanks designed to last 20 years.  Most of them are still in tanks, up to 59 years later.

Some of the tanks began leaking soon after the 20-year lifespan had been passed.  The leakers, when detected, were handled in a variety of ways, few of them satisfactory or designed for the long term (20,000 years or so).  New leakers show up from time to time.  Just this month, at least seven new leakers were discovered:
Hanford's one leaking single-shell radioactive waste tank is now six leaking tanks — and possibly more. 
The fix-it measure: That's a mystery for now. 
But it might get revealed in the next few days. Gov. Jay Inslee wants remedial work to start as quickly as possible. 
"We need an action plan at Hanford in a variety of ways," said Inslee Friday afternoon when he announced the new leaking tanks in a phone press conference. Inslee was in Washington, D.C., and had just been briefed by Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu. 
There is no immediate health danger, Inslee said. 
Central Hanford has 149 single-shell tanks and 28 newer double-shell tanks holding 53 million gallons of highly radioactive fluids, sludges, gunk and crusts — all underground. There are 18 clusters of tanks — dubbed "tank farms" — seven to 14 miles from the Columbia River. Sixty-seven of the single-shell tanks have been designated leakers or suspected leakers for decades. Hanford's tanks have design lives of roughly 20 years. 
Hanford has pumped almost all the liquids from the single-shell tanks into the double-shell shells, finishing that task in 2005. The single-shell tanks still hold sludge, gunk and crusts, plus tiny pockets of fluids.
KING TV in Seattle:

 Abby Martin on RT TV:

When I was a kid, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the nuclear prophets and savants promised that nuclear energy would be "too cheap to meter."  Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, in 1954:
Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter... It is not too much to expect that our children will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.
Here is the propaganda piece we were forced to watch in school, about the time I was in the 6th grade, Our Friend the Atom:

 The cost of toxic radiological cleanup will ultimately be in the trillions of dollars. Most efforts have been short-term. Scores of thousands of tons of spent fuel rods are suspended above vulnerable reactors, across the USA and planet.

Real estate in Portland Oregon may get really, really cheap, unless something is done soon.


Anonymous said...

Great post..scary especially since I live over the hill from Handford..upwind. Moved here from Fairbanks 16 yrs ago to retire, love the weather and the wine country.
Those people working at Handford could care less about what's going on out there, they are making big bucks and they sure let you know they work in "the area" as they call it. All they have been doing is putting bandaids on the problem because I don't think they know how to fix it and I don't think we are being told the whole truth either. The story's I could tell you about the wasted money, I think they worry more about the catered breakfasts and lunches than fixing the problem, after all it is job security and has been for years..

Philip Munger said...

@ 8:13 am:

I spent a lot of time in and around Hanford-Richland from the late 1980s through 1997. I'll be writing more a out this, as I could tell a lot of stories also.

We are NOT being told the whole truth.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine who grew up in Pasco in the 50/60's lost her mother, her father and two siblings to very rare cancers. You betcha people aren't being told the truth.