Hanford nuclear facility a far greater threat to the West Coast than Fukushima … Here’s why
Although much attention has been focused on the threat posed to the U.S. West Coast by radioactivity from the 2011 Fukushima disaster, an even greater threat has gone largely ignored, warns nuclear historian Robert Jacobs of the Hiroshima Peace Institute.
That threat is the Hanford Site, which sits just 400 yards from the Columbia River in eastern Washington. Hanford contains two-thirds of the high-level radioactive waste (by volume) in the United States, and has been leaking for decades.
“While radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns is reaching the West Coast, carried across the ocean from Japan, the radiation from Hanford is already there, has been there for 70 years, and is in serious risk of catastrophe that could dwarf the effects of Fukushima even on Japan,” Jacobs writes in an article for Counter Punch.
Disaster waiting to happen
The Hanford facility was the site of the world’s first three nuclear reactors, all of which were used to refine plutonium for nuclear weapons. A total of nine plants would eventually be built on the site.
Hanford now stores an enormous volume of nuclear waste from decades of weapons manufacture. It contains 80 percent of the spent nuclear fuel rods in the country.
Most of this waste is stored at the Tank Farms, consisting of 177 waste storage tanks at two different locations on site; these pose a major safety hazard. In 1957, the cooling system at a tank similar to those at Hanford failed at the Mayak plutonium production site in the former Soviet Union. The ensuing explosion, known as the Kyshtym Disaster, was at that time the worst nuclear disaster in history. Hanford possesses 177 tanks of the type that exploded in 1957, located right next to each other. To make matters worse, there is no security around the Tank Farms to prevent them from being targeted by terrorists.
Over the years, 67 of the tanks have leaked 1 million gallons of highly radioactive waste into soil next to the Columbia River. In 2011, many of the leaking tanks were replaced with new, double-walled tanks. The new tanks still leaked.
In addition to the Tank Farms, the EPA has identified as many as 1,500 separate sites at Hanford where toxic or radioactive chemicals were improperly dumped.
Cleanup efforts at the plant have largely gone nowhere, and many whistleblowers have come forward to condemn the flawed safety designs of the supposed cleanup plans. Meanwhile, workers at the plant regularly sicken; one two-week period in March 2014 saw 26 hospitalized with mysterious health problems.
Do you eat Washington salmon?
Jacobs contrasts awareness of Hanford with that of Fukushima. He notes that many people avoid Pacific seafood or food from Japan, for fear of radioactive contamination.
“At the same time, there is no discussion about eating salmon from the Columbia River, drinking wines from the Columbia Valley, or fruit from the orchards that fill the downwind area around Hanford,” he writes. “The amount of radiation in the Hanford area dwarfs the amount arriving on the West Coast of the United States on a scale that is mindboggling.”
Jacobs is careful not to downplay the horror of the Fukushima disaster, nor the ongoing damage done by radioactive water from the plant continuing to flow into the Pacific Ocean.
“Some of that radiation is reaching the West Coast of the U.S., and this will continue as long as the site hemorrhages contaminated water into the ocean, which will likely be for some decades,” he writes.
“But it should also be remembered that it is the people of Japan, and specifically the children of Japan who live in the areas where the fallout plumes deposited that face the direst of these consequences.”
Similarly dire consequences, he says, are already being faced by those living near Hanford.
Radioactivity from Hanford has been “saturating the groundwater and ecosystem of the Northwest for more than 70 years,” he writes. And people living downwind have suffered from elevated cancer rates for generations.
Sources for this article include: