Guest Opinions

Hanford cleanup’s frustrating, yet astonishing, achievements

In this 1989 photo, key players celebrate the signing of the Tri-Party Agreement. Washington State Attorney General Chris Gregoire is on the left. Gov. Booth Gardner is on the far right and next to him is Mike Lawrence, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy Richland Operations Office.
In this 1989 photo, key players celebrate the signing of the Tri-Party Agreement. Washington State Attorney General Chris Gregoire is on the left. Gov. Booth Gardner is on the far right and next to him is Mike Lawrence, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy Richland Operations Office. Photo courtesy Department of Ecology

Editor’s note: Authors Chris Gregoire and Mike Lawrence were instrumental in developing the Tri-Party Agreement, a 30-year pact setting out goals for cleaning up nearly five decades of nuclear defense waste at Hanford.

When the TPA was signed in 1989, Gregoire was director of the Washington Department of Ecology and Lawrence was manager of the U.S. Department of Energy Richland Operations Office.

Thirty years ago May 15, hundreds of people gathered in Richland, Washington, for a celebration, complete with cake and champagne. It was not a wedding or award ceremony. Far from it.

They gathered to celebrate the signing of a landmark agreement calling for the cleanup of Hanford, a 580-square-mile site contaminated with some of the most dangerous, and long-lived, chemicals and nuclear wastes on the planet.

The agreement, between the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Washington — now commonly known as the Tri-Party Agreement (TPA) — called for the cleanup of tons of plutonium and millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste.

To understand the uniqueness and significance of the TPA, it helps to look back at our history, and in particular the creation of America’s atomic bomb.

In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt charged several of the world’s greatest physicists to design and build the world’s first nuclear reactor at Hanford. The Manhattan Project was top secret and its mission was to produce weapons-grade plutonium, an essential ingredient in a nuclear weapon.

In just 13 months, a team led by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi completed design and construction of the B-reactor, the first of its kind on the planet. The B-plant produced the plutonium that fueled the atomic bombs that detonated over Japan, ending World War II.

But the production of plutonium, hazardous nuclear waste and toxic chemicals didn’t stop with the end of that war.

The ensuing Cold War Arms Race between the Soviet Union and the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s led to the addition of more reactors — ultimately totaling nine production reactors and two test reactors — and hundreds of other facilities, all built across the Hanford site bordered by the Columbia River.

Over time, they produced tons of plutonium and millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste. The nuclear weapons, enabled by the work at Hanford, literally changed the world. Whether madness or genius, the mutual-assured destruction approach to global security resulted in an uneasy peace among the world’s superpowers. There was a very real fear in the late 1980s that the federal government would put up a big fence around Hanford, declare it a “national sacrifice zone” and walk away.

Hanford is run by the the Department of Energy and, for years, was self-regulated until a court in Tennessee ruled in 1984 that the agency had to comply with federal and state environmental regulations. That was a position long held by our state.

Everyone knew cleaning up Hanford would be a complex, contentious and expensive task. Time was needed to agree on the extent of the contamination and just how to clean up the site. And the price tag soared to billions of dollars.

Unlike other nuclear production sites, Hanford had used many different processes, which produced nuclear materials of complex mixtures, with many different chemicals in the waste.

The most radioactive waste was stored in 149 1-million-gallon underground, single-shell tanks and, later, in 27 double-shell tanks. The technologies and facilities necessary to treat such hazardous and diverse waste had never been demonstrated and built on such a large scale.

The “production” mission at Hanford had ended and the cleanup mission began when the TPA was signed.

It wasn’t easy to reach agreement. For three years, we were involved in very intense negotiations and endless meetings to try to understand the challenges and solutions to clean up the site. It was clear any compliance plan would require an ongoing process to digest new information and risks, resolve differences, invent new technologies and proceed to clean up the site.

The new mission was every bit as historical as the “production” one. In many ways, however, it was even more daunting since it involved cleaning up a sprawling site through which the Columbia River flows. In addition, the Tri-Cities, with a current population of 250,000, lies just south of the site.

As original signers of the TPA, we were, and remain, driven by a common commitment to the protection of our Northwest environment, the people of the Tri-Cities and our mighty Columbia River.

We are pleased to say extraordinary progress has been made. All 11 of the production reactors have been closed, and five of the nine production reactors have been buried in millions of tons of concrete, a mute testament to a bygone era.

Millions of tons of contaminated soils, construction debris and other contaminated materials have been placed in an 11-square-mile area at the center of the site, with ongoing monitoring. Huge concrete processing buildings have been decommissioned and many torn down.

Almost all of the plumes of contaminated groundwater reaching the Columbia River have been contained by the world’s largest “pump-and-treat” system and other systems. More than 90 percent of the reservation is free from contamination and a significant part of the site has been designated as the Hanford National Monument.

But the work is far from over. At the center of the Hanford cleanup is the $17 billion “Vitrification Plant,” which is still not operational. The original hot start date of 1999 has been delayed to 2023. The “Vit Plant” will treat tank waste, turning it into a glasslike substance similar to obsidian, which must then be stored on-site until ultimate disposal in a deep geologic facility. Without it, the tanks cannot be emptied. Groundwater contamination from leaking tanks is still challenging with two stubborn plumes that must be contained.

Another lingering concern involves what appears to be exposure to harmful vapors in the tank farms. We need to ensure the long-term safety of all workers at the Hanford site.

Tribal treaty rights also must be protected. The Yakama Nation has treaty rights to cultural sites and traditional hunting and fishing grounds on the Hanford site that have been severely curtailed by the presence of radioactive contamination and site security requirements. We encourage the federal government and the Yakama Nation to reach a fair and equitable resolution to the tribe’s claims.

We are incredibly proud of our part in the Hanford cleanup. The partnership over the last 30 years has at times been frustrating, discouraging and even rancorous. But we never were willing to give up and remained committed to the new mission.

The work between the federal government and the state of Washington will result in the most complete, the most protective and the most expensive cleanup of a site like Hanford anywhere in the world.

There remains much important work to be completed. The federal/state partnership must endure for decades to come. After three decades, our thanks to the committed men and women who have worked so hard to make cleanup possible, to our ever-vigilant congressional delegation, as well as other elected officials, to the people of the Tri-Cities and the Yakama Nation, and to government for standing up to its responsibilities to the people of the great state of Washington.

Chris Gregoire was director of the Washington Department of Ecology and served three terms as Washington's attorney general and two as governor. In those roles she continued to press for federal cleanup accountability, including litigation, under the TPA framework.

Mike Lawrence was manager of the U.S. Department of Energy Richland Operations Office. He also was Counselor of Nuclear Policy for the U.S. State Department in Vienna; associate laboratory director at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; and director of the National Nuclear Laboratory in the U.K.

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