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Following WWII, the "Cold War" years led to a build up of nuclear weapons. Tons of solid waste and millions of gallons of liquid waste, were created as a result. Much of that waste was poured directly into the ground through injection wells and cribs - similar to septic fields (no we're not kidding). Hanford is considered the single most contaminated place in the western hemisphere!
In 1989, the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Energy (manager of the Hanford Site) signed the Tri-Party Agreement to clean up the Hanford Site.
For purposes of cleanup, the Site is divided into two sections, the Columbia River Corridor, and the rest of the 586 mile site, primarily focused on the Central Plateau.
Columbia River Corridor
The Columbia River, the fourth largest river in the U.S., forms the northern and eastern boundaries of the Hanford Site.
Hanford's reactors needed the river's dependable water for cooling.
In the old days, water made a single pass through the reactor, and back to the river. Later, the water was treated before returning to the river.
Many small sites along the river were contaminated.
Since 1995 4 1/2 million tons of dirt and debris have been removed from the Columbia River shore.
Reactors & Support Buildings
There were nine production reactors at Hanford. In 1989, the last one was shut down.
Now that Hanford's mission is cleanup rather than military production, these facilities must be safely closed.
More than 80% of the reactor complex is taken apart, leaving only the shield walls and the reactor core. A 75-year roof is placed over the remaining structure. The reactors will become safer through natural radioactive decay, and will only need to be monitored once every five years.
This process will protect people and the environment.
The "B" reactor was the first operating reactor in the Manhattan Project. People want to preserve it as a museum to remember the difficult work and scientific achievement it involved.
Groundwater is the water contained between the pores in soil or rock.
The red areas on this map show areas where the groundwater so polluted it would be unsafe to drink. Since the map was made, the contamination has been treated or contained reducing the worst pollution to about 80 square miles.
Groundwater at Hanford is polluted with a variety of chemical and radioactive wastes.
Some areas can be cleaned by pumping out the dirty water, cleaning it above ground, and putting the clean water back into the ground. This is known as pump and treat.
Scientists have also designed a way to create a chemical barrier under the ground that prevents pollution from spreading, it has a fancy name, in-situ redox manipulation (otherwise known as ISRM technology).
For more on Hanford Groundwater, check out this brochure.
The Central Plateau is farther from the river and includes the 200 East and West Areas. The Hanford Tank Farms are in these areas.
The Environmental Restoration and Disposal Facility, or ERDF is also in the Central Plateau.
It has a system to capture any liquids that may drain out of the waste stored there so that it won't reach the groundwater. This drawing shows what a typical modern landfill design looks like.
Solid Waste Storage
There are several sites around the Hanford Site where waste is disposed. The Environmental Restoration and Disposal Facility (ERDF) accepts waste from small contaminated sites around Hanford. The waste may include dirt from areas along the river shore, or old wastewater cribs - something like a septic field
The dirt from this old crib will be taken to ERDF. As the excavation occurs the radiation level is constantly monitored. If it becomes too "hot", the driver may need to be replaced more often so he or she doesn't get too big a dose.
Tank Waste Treatment
Much of the waste at Hanford is in 177 underground tanks. The tanks are huge - and can hold 500 thousand to 1 million gallons. Most of them are single-shell, meaning, if they crack or corrode, the waste leaks to the ground.
The waste is a toxic stew of both radioactive and chemically hazardous liquids. Solid layers called salt cake form on the surface, making it difficult to empty the tanks.
About a million gallons have leaked from various tanks over the years. That's enough waste to fill about 20 backyard swimming pools!
The best way to prevent further pollution will be to process that waste by turning it into glass. To do that the Dept. of Energy is building a special waste treatment plant.
At the vitrification, or VIT plant, liquid waste will be mixed with sand and that mixture will be superheated, turning it into glass. It will then be poured it into a large metal tubes to cool.
The company building the VIT plant has a website with more photos and information.
Bechtel National, Inc. is designing, building and commissioning a vast complex of treatment plants to convert dangerous waste into stable glass.
The building process is moving right along, follow this link to see photos.
During the early eighties, the Department of Energy looked at many potential sites for a safe place to permanently store high-level nuclear waste. They'll call it the High Level Waste Repository. Considering a wide range of criteria, the sites selected for further study were narrowed down to nine, then from nine to five, from five to three, and eventually from three to one – Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Yucca Mountain is about 90 miles away from Las Vegas, a popular tourist destination. The canisters or storage tubes from the Waste Treatment Plant will be stored deep in the ground at Yucca.
HANDS ON!! - Create a Hanford Tank
GATHER THESE ITEMS:
Empty wide mouthed plastic container (whipped topping or margarine for example) with a lid.
Food items such as pudding, flavored gelatin, whipped cream, chopped nuts, crushed cookies, ice cream toppings.
Straw or length of clean, new aquarium hose.
Large syringe (ask your pediatrician for one) or pipette.
Fill the container with a variety of food items. Cut a small hole in the lid and put the lid on the container. Put the syringe and the aquarium hose or straw together. Stick it through the lid. Try to suck out the contents of your tank. Was it easy to get it out? Try the different types of equipment. Try shaking the contents to mix it. Did it come out more easily? Did you get any food on yourself? What if you link several straws together, does that make it easier or harder to remove the contents of the "tank"?
This picture shows the inside of a Hanford tank, with 'salt cake' on top of the liquid. Pumps work hard to move the waste out, but the contents are icky and frequently clog the lines. Special spray heads are in some tanks to spray water on the contents, making it easier to pump. All the waste is chemically or radioactively dangerous.
Yucca Mountain geology has been carefully examined for years. Some geologists think ancient earthquake faults and groundwater may cause problems for future storage of waste, however the federal government has announced that Yucca will be the nation's high level waste storage site. Nuclear reactor operators across the country are waiting for Yucca to start accepting waste. At Hanford, we've been counting on Yucca Mountain to permanently store our most dangerous waste for years.
Not everyone wants the deep geologic repository to be built. It is only 90 miles from Las Vegas, a popular vacation spot for millions of visitors. Visit these sites and see what the various parties have to say about Yucca Mountain.
|Try this: Write an essay either supporting or opposing the permanent geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, NV.|
Learn more about the Hanford Site, follow the links below.
Are you interested in having a classroom presentation on Hanford? We've got cool, hands-on projects to help kids understand the challenges and importance of Hanford Cleanup. Please email Ginger Wireman - Environmental Education and Outreach Specialist, or call 372-7935.