Leaking Hanford tanks topic at Manhattan Project park hearing

April 12, 2013 

— Leaking radioactive waste tanks at Hanford would not present a risk to visitors to Hanford’s historic B Reactor, Kennewick Mayor Steve Young said Friday in response to questions at a congressional hearing on creating a new Manhattan Project Historical Park.

B Reactor and other historical sites, such as the Bruggemann ranch, are well away from the tanks at the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation, Young told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

The tanks are underground and there is no impact to the air, which is monitored, he said.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., also said earlier in the hearing that leaking tanks at Hanford have been an issue for decades.

They hold enough waste to fill 20 U.S. House chambers, which is why environmental cleanup of Hanford and national repositories for the waste are so important, he said.

That legacy of waste, however, is the result of Hanford’s efforts to win World War II and the Cold War, he said. The tanks hold radioactive waste from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, including waste from plutonium production for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

Because of the efforts of more than 100,000 people at those sites, WWII ended three years and one day after the Manhattan Project was established, said Young, who is the chairman of the Hanford Communities.

Legislation is proposed to create a Manhattan Project National Park that would include sites at Hanford, at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and at Los Alamos, N.M.

Similar legislation was introduced last year, but failed to get a two-thirds vote when it was given expedited consideration under a suspension of the rules. However, the bill does have enough support to pass on a traditional vote, which requires a majority.

“It is a question of not if, but when,” Hastings said.

At Hanford B Reactor, the world’s first production scale reactor, and possibly T Plant, which chemically separated the plutonium from irradiated fuel rods, would be included in the park. In addition, buildings such as the Bruggemann warehouse, abandoned as settlers were forced off their land by the government, could be preserved in a national park.

Most of the historic sites being considered for the three-state national park already are owned by the federal government, Hastings said.

If they are not preserved, the Department of Energy would be legally required to tear them down at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.

Operating and maintaining the three-state park would cost $2.45 million to $4 million per year, the park service said.

The proposed park would not be about glorifying nuclear weapons, said Victor Knox, National Park Service associate director for park planning, facilities and lands.

The park service would tell the entire story of the Manhattan Project, which resulted in two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, Knox said.

The National Park Service provides education about and remembers events the nation might not be entirely proud of, he said. That includes the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, where Japanese American citizens were interned in WWII, and the Sand Creek National Historic Site in Colorado, site of a horrific Native American massacre.

“The development of the atomic bomb through the Manhattan Project was one of the most transformative events in our nation’s history,” he said. “It ushered in the atomic age, changed the role of the United States in the world community and set the stage for the Cold War.”

It also transformed the Tri-City area.

At Hanford, more than 2,000 residents, mostly farmers, were given just days to weeks to move off their land, Young said.

“This included moving, getting rid of thousands of animals, all the farm equipment and most importantly closing schools and moving families,” he said.

Once the land was acquired by the government, workers had to be found. Those workers first had to build their own town with dormitories, mess halls, sewer, roads and railroads before construction could start on reactors, Young said. The Hanford construction camp, home to 50,000 workers, became the third largest town in Washington.

Workers for the project were among the most talented in their fields, whether physicists or pipefitters, he said.

In just 11 months, B Reactor was built, producing plutonium less than two years after the first ever sustained nuclear fission chain reaction under the bleachers at the University of Chicago’s Staff Field in December 1942, Young said. But B Reactor was a million times more powerful, he said.

“These are engineering feats and accomplishments that must be told to future generations,” Young said. “And, it needs to be told before all the old-timers are gone.”

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Parks will consider a similar bill April 23, said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

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