By Matt McCormick and Stacy Charboneau, Special to the Herald
During our State of the Hanford Site Cleanup meetings in March, we heard many views, concerns and suggestions, with emphasis on requesting more funding for cleanup, accelerating the pace of our work and protecting the Columbia River.
Thanks to those who attended the meetings. Continued community involvement will produce quality cleanup and helps sustain funding for this critical work.
Not surprisingly, one issue that came up at the meetings was unrelated to our environmental cleanup mission at Hanford.
Because of recent events in Japan, more people are talking about nuclear activities than they were a month ago. Interest in nuclear activities creates an opportunity for education, public discussion and debate.
That is why we would like to take this opportunity to provide context for what the Department of Energy is doing here at Hanford.
It's clear from our meetings that many people around the Northwest don't know that the commercial nuclear reactor at Hanford is owned and operated by Energy Northwest, not the Department of Energy.
Environmental consequences of Hanford's past operations are well known to most Mid-Columbia residents, but it's easy to forget the magnitude of the problem.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, Hanford produced more than half of the plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program. During that time, millions of cubic feet of solid waste was placed in trenches and other burial sites.
More than 50 million gallons of radioactive waste was stored in large underground tanks. About 450 billion gallons of less-contaminated liquids were discharged to the soil, creating an area of groundwater contamination in excess of 100 square miles beneath the site.
In addition, approximately 2,300 tons of leftover spent nuclear fuel was stored in water-filled pools near the Columbia River, which runs through the site.
Over the years, dozens of the large underground tanks had leaked contaminated liquids into the soil.
Today, we're engaged in cleanup of buildings, soil, debris, groundwater and liquid wastes that once were contaminated with radioactive material.
While several facilities on the site still store or contain hazardous materials, the material is monitored and configured to protect the public and the environment.
With continued proper storage and handling, the residual wastes do not pose a threat to site workers, visitors or the public.
Since cleanup began in the late 1980s, DOE and its contractors have addressed some of the most urgent environmental and public health risks. For example, 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel has been removed from storage pools near the river and placed in dry storage at the center of the site.
Twenty tons of leftover plutonium material has been stabilized and shipped out of the state. Eighty million gallons of groundwater are processed each month to remove contaminants, with more than 5 billion gallons treated to date.
Removable liquids have been retrieved from large, single-shell underground storage tanks, and a plant for treating the large volume of sludge and solid material remaining in the tanks is more than half built. The nine reactors on site that once irradiated uranium to produce plutonium have been emptied of fuel, and five have been demolished down to the shield walls surrounding the reactor cores.
Much has been done and there is more work ahead. Cleanup of the Hanford site is complex and is expected to take decades, primarily because of the amount and extent of contamination that resulted from producing plutonium -- not power -- for the United States.
The work is some of the most challenging and heavily regulated in the United States, and it hasn't always gone as planned. But workers, regulators, community members and others share a common goal to ensure safety is our No. 1 priority and that cleanup is completed safely and efficiently. We would like to build on that common ground.
We invite you stay or get involved, whether it's attending a Hanford public meeting, commenting on cleanup decisions or taking a tour of the site. Hanford is an unprecedented environmental cleanup effort. And it's in your backyard.
For more information, we invite you to visit our website at www.hanford.gov or view the first of several video chapters on Hanford at www.youtube.com/hanfordsite.
* Matt McCormick is manager of the Department of Energy's Richland Operations Office. Stacy Charboneau is acting manager for the Office of River Protection.