Dangerous US nuclear accident at Hanford Nuclear Reservation – latest costly legacy of the Cold War

The US Department of Energy declared an emergency early Tuesday morning, May 9th, when workers noticed the partial collapse of an underground tunnel used to store old railroad cars filled with dangerous nuclear weapons waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. Green Cross International, which has spent over two decades helping governments and communities to contain and remediate highly toxic wastes, including radioactive wastes from the nuclear arms race, called for immediate emergency response and careful evaluation of the potentially dangerous accident which could impact 230,000 citizens in the tri-city region (Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, Washington), as well as the much larger tri-state region (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho).

The US federal government has called for some 4,800 workers at the large, sprawling, 586- square-mile (1,518-square-kilometer) site to seek cover, remain inside, or evacuate until the seriousness of the accident can be evaluated. A mobile robot is reportedly being used now to help measure if any radiation has been released. The site includes nine old nuclear reactors and five plutonium processing facilities, all shutdown and “cocooned” since the end of the Cold War. One commercial nuclear reactor, the Columbia Generating Station, continues to operate.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the United States is sometimes called the dirtiest and most dangerous site in the US. Established in the 1940s during the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons, it has been used to produce weapons-grade plutonium for most of the 60,000 US nuclear weapons developed since World War II – including material for the first nuclear bomb test at the Trinity Site and for the “Fat Man” nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9th, 1945. Today, Hanford contains 177 storage tanks holding over 53 million US gallons (212 million litres) of high-level liquid nuclear waste and another 25 million cubic feet (710,000 cubic metres) of radioactive solid waste. Past scientific reports have shown leakage from the rusting tanks and atmospheric emissions downwind. The US Government, which currently spends about $2 billion annually for Hanford management, has estimated it will spend $107 billion for another 40+ years to help clean up the site.

Dr. Paul F. Walker, international director of the Green Cross Environmental Security and Sustainability Programme, commented that “Hanford is a national sacrifice zone for the 20th century nuclear arms race and may never be fully remediated of deadly radioactive waste; the challenge continues to be preventing radioactive emissions which have already contaminated the surrounding region and Columbia River for decades now, endangering public health and the environment. Let’s all hope that this accident can be contained.”

(Photo by United States Department of Energy – Image N1D0069267., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3504581)