Progress made on Hanford cleanup, but challenges remain

It’s been almost 25 years since the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington Department of Ecology entered into an agreement to clean up the Hanford Site — widely considered to be the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation.

The 586-square-mile site located on the Columbia River north of Washington’s Tri-Cities was responsible for producing most of the plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program during the Cold War, as well as hundreds of billions of gallons of hazardous waste before production ended and cleanup began in 1989.

Two-and-a-half decades later, the estimated date for the cleanup’s completion is still almost 35 years away and could possibly stretch longer due to delays.

Progress, however gradual, is being made on decommissioning the site, though. On Monday, the Oregon Hanford Cleanup Board — a 20-member advisory panel made up of state, tribal, and citizen members — met at the Best Western Hood River Inn to listen to presentations on the cleanup efforts.

The venue, which lies a stone’s throw from the Columbia, was a fitting one as the Oregon Department of Energy has cited that its primary role is “to ensure that cleanup decisions are protective of the Columbia River.”

One of those decisions pertains to how the USDOE can stanch the bleeding of hexavalent chromium from out of the Hanford Site and into the groundwater supply that feeds into the Columbia about two-and-a-half hours northeast of Hood River. Hexavalent chromium is often used, as it was at Hanford, to help stop corrosion in metal piping, but is a known carcinogen.

Ken Niles, administrator of the ODOE, reported that crews are currently digging pits upwards of 85 feet deep to remove the chromium plumes and noted that the efforts had “tremendously reduced the amount of chromium in the river.” However, Dale Engstrom, natural resource specialist with ODOE, reported that chromium is “on a good day, very challenging to remove.”

In addition to the ongoing chemical removal, Niles reported two structures in the “300” area of the facility were scheduled for removal by the end of the month. The structures include a defunct underground plutonium test reactor as well as a vault containing two 15,000-gallon tanks that once accepted laboratory waste.

Niles said the structures were responsible for a good deal of contamination in that particular area of the facility.

Despite the progress, the USDOE lists 67 single-shell waste storage tanks as “assumed leakers” and one tank with an active leak.

Back in early 2013, it was thought six single-shell tanks were actively leaking, but USDOE recently determined that only one tank, T-111, was actively leaking.

Niles reported that progress on cleanup could be hindered as states continue to battle each other for federal funding for polluted sites.

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