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You might get an even better tan when we get to Hanford
February 19, 2014 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Eric Nusbaum tours the largest environmental cleanup operation the United States government has ever undertaken, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Over the last 20 years, Hanford has also become something else: a tourist destination. If you want to see just how big the reservation is, or get an idea of how much work remains to be done there, you can sign up for an official government tour of the site. About 60 public tours are offered per year. The tours are free, but highly sought after. Last year, registration opened at midnight on March 6, and closed by 5 a.m.
posted by frimble (29 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't know if it's related but Imminent global cancer 'disaster' reflects aging, lifestyle factors
Cancer cases are expected to surge 57% worldwide in the next 20 years, an imminent "human disaster" that will require a renewed focus on prevention to combat, according to the World Health Organization. The World Cancer Report, produced by the WHO's specialized cancer agency and released on World Cancer Day, predicts new cancer cases will rise from an estimated 14 million annually in 2012 to 22 million within two decades. Over the same period, cancer deaths are predicted to rise from 8.2 million a year to 13 million.
It's nearly impossible to say one got cancer from the environment but it also seems incredulous to say the rising cancer rates are not being caused, in part, due to environmental factors.
posted by stbalbach at 10:02 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


Or you could just move anywhere down river on the Columbia and wait for Hanford to visit you.
posted by three blind mice at 10:12 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


So maybe it's not a big nuclear war that wipes out intelligent life before they can make contact. Maybe its just this slow, creeping, radioactive death that no one can ever really stop, once the genie is out of the bottle.

You know, not a bang, but a whimper.
posted by valkane at 10:36 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]


My brain was parsing this as Hartford and I was SO CONFUSED. Especially this part:

Over the last 20 years, Hanford has also become something else: a tourist destination.

That said, this post is a great counterpoint to lordaych's Rocky Flats post a few days ago. Proof positive that you while you can try to pave/wildlife preserve/whatever over your mistakes, you can't undo them.
posted by mynameisluka at 10:40 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]


"Whistle-blower Donna Busche, who raised safety concerns at the nation's most polluted nuclear weapons production site, was fired Tuesday from her job at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation."
posted by dirigibleman at 10:55 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


I don't know if it's related but Imminent global cancer 'disaster' reflects aging, lifestyle factors...

Well, from that same article you linked:
The report said about half of all cancers were preventable and could have been avoided if current medical knowledge was acted upon. The disease could be tackled by addressing lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, diet and exercise; adopting screening programs; or, in the case of infection-triggered cancers such as cervical and liver cancers, through vaccines.
So... no? Not demonstrably related at all? In that at least half of the projected increase is tied to completely different factors. I mean, I think we can all agree that cleaning up Hanford is a good idea and I'm not saying it's good for you to live downstream, but it strikes me as odd to jump straight to a completely unrelated article about cancer.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:00 AM on February 19 [4 favorites]


The tours are free, but highly sought after. Last year, registration opened at midnight on March 6, and closed by 5 a.m.

"In that case I'll tell you what they should do, they should combine the two jobs, make it one job, make it Hanford tourist/cleanup man. Say you have a tourist with nothing to do, grab a broom, start sweeping, you sweep, sweep, look at a uranium trioxide tank, sweep, sweep, sweep, get a glimpse of a coolant tower, get right back to sweeping". --Seinfeld, S4E25, "The Reactor", 11/5/92
posted by crapmatic at 11:05 AM on February 19 [6 favorites]


Did anybody else just automatically insert "so far" after the link up top?
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:22 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


It's nearly impossible to say one got cancer from the environment but it also seems incredulous to say the rising cancer rates are not being caused, in part, due to environmental factors.

Play him out, Joe.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:43 AM on February 19


From dirigibleman's link:

Busche is the second Hanford whistle-blower to be fired by URS in recent months. Walter Tamosaitis, who also raised safety concerns about the plant, was fired in October after 44 years of employment.

Busche, who worked at the plant for nearly five years, said she had been expecting to be fired for the past month.

"Right now I will take a deep breath, file for unemployment and start another lawsuit for wrongful termination," Busche said.


Nuclear is unsafe, because humans can't be trusted to run the technology safely.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:57 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


I used to live in Richland, Washington. I also later lived on Ft. Irwin, not far from the town where Erin Brockovich got her start as a consumer advocate. In the house I lived in on Ft. Irwin, there was one tap marked "potable water." We were showering/bathing and brushing teeth daily with water that was considered not fit to drink. My health declined dramatically while I was there. Shortly after I left, I ended up bedridden.

I know someone who worked at a different nuclear plant for some years and has been battling cancer on and off for a long, long time. I cannot prove that my health problems or hers have anything to do with our exposure to these environments but it sounds crazy to me to say that being unable to prove it means "it clearly didn't" play a part. This seems to be the position people take: That being unable to prove it is the same as disproving it. That hardly seems to add up in any sort of logical way.

I am somewhat saddened to hear people are doing tours. I understand people taking jobs in such places. We all need a means to support ourselves and working routinely exposes you to health hazards, but not working is generally worse. But I find it rather horrifying to think people go just to play looky-loo and gawk.
posted by Michele in California at 1:13 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]


From the article: why Hanford began offering tours in the first place: to answer criticisms about lack of transparency at the site.

If it's any comfort, the article's also pretty clear there aren't many tours offered.
posted by asperity at 1:31 PM on February 19


(Obviously the best Superfund site for tourists is the Berkeley Pit.)
posted by asperity at 1:32 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


Blazecock P.: Nuclear is unsafe, because humans can't be trusted to run the technology safely.

I disagree! But Man, it's hard to think of a workable argument against this statement. Hanford's a bit of a special case because of both Cold War and Superfund politics, but it's such an egregious example of bad management in the face of every nuclear industry claim that "oh yes, we've got all the bases covered - look how much we've learned from the mistakes of the past!" The era of modern cleanup and disposal at Hanford started around 1988 at the latest, and exactly what has been accomplished in the last 25 years?
posted by sneebler at 2:23 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


But I find it rather horrifying to think people go just to play looky-loo and gawk.

I'm more saddened by people leaping to uncharitable conclusions about the motivations of others.
posted by anonymisc at 2:32 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]


Seriously, especially when we're talking about something i could see a more conservative assy government sweeping under the rug and making some kind of top secret "national security" site.
posted by emptythought at 2:38 PM on February 19


sneebler: "The era of modern cleanup and disposal at Hanford started around 1988 at the latest, and exactly what has been accomplished in the last 25 years?"

A metric ass load of taxpayer dollars has been spent, I would guess.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 3:00 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


I'm more saddened by people leaping to uncharitable conclusions about the motivations of others.

I am going to assume you don't know my story since I don't post much on the blue. I spent nearly four months bedridden thirteen years ago. I have spent the last 13 years dragging myself back from death's door. I quit my corporate job a bit over 2 years ago to go be homeless and finish getting well because it became clear to me that my desk job in an industrial park was an obstacle to me ever getting genuinely well. I am nearly well and I still have a mountain of debt that I am trying to cope with and I still struggle to get enough to eat the last week of every month.

It is my sister that worked at a nuclear plant. She has had breast cancer four times and is currently being treated for colon cancer. I took care of her and her young child when she had her first mastectomy many years ago. I would not trade my problems for hers, though she has a good job and good income etc, there is no expectation she will ever be well and her financial problems loom larger than mine in spite of her much higher income.

Your personal attack annoys me but makes me no less horrified at the idea of people willfully exposing themselves to unknown amounts of environmental toxins that our current state of medicine does not know how to effectively treat, much less do so humanely. If you have seen the movie Erin Brockovich, when the mom finally gets what Erin is saying, she runs screaming out into the yard to get her kids out of the pool. It was likely that same water I was bathing in while doctors denied me antibiotics and acted like I was a hypochondriac for several years before things really and truly went to hell and I nearly died.

FWIW, I also happen to be an Environmental Studies Major, though my bachelor's seems unlikely at this time to ever be completed. Plus my corporate job involved reading medical records all day, every day. So this is not just the horror of someone with emotional scars from my own personal suffering. I think it is fairly informed.
posted by Michele in California at 3:04 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


Michele in California: " I also later lived on Ft. Irwin, not far from the town where Erin Brockovich got her start as a consumer advocate. In the house I lived in on Ft. Irwin, there was one tap marked "potable water." We were showering/bathing and brushing teeth daily with water that was considered not fit to drink. My health declined dramatically while I was there. Shortly after I left, I ended up bedridden."

In light of your other comment this is in no way intended as an attack, but as someone who has worked on environmental issues in Hinkley and at Fort Irwin, I would guess that the activities at the latter would be far more likely to have caused problems. They've blown up all kinds of crap out there over the years. And Fort Irwin gets its water from within the base. The reason there are separate systems is that the groundwater naturally contains fluoride and arsenic above regulatory guidelines. It is cheaper (and more efficient) to make a smaller amount of water potable for ingestion than make all of it that way. You shouldn't have been brushing your teeth with non-potable water by the way....

But people should definitely keep knocking the dangers of nuclear energy (especially the usual suspects here) while enjoying all that cheap power generated by coal which is totally safe!
posted by Big_B at 3:22 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]


I am going to assume you don't know my story since I don't post much on the blue.

I don't see your story as pertinent - you continue to unnecessarily assume the worst of people because... why?! Do you think Erin Brockovich would avoid a tour of the PG&E plant if she had the opportunity, to see as much for herself as possible about what she was up against? I think she'd be on a tour faster than you could say hexavalent chromium.

Why does Erin Brockovich horrify you? Why do you assume Erin Brockovich is just a gawker playing looky-loo? Do you see why your assumptions about others saddened me?
posted by anonymisc at 3:26 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


But people should definitely keep knocking the dangers of nuclear energy (especially the usual suspects here) while enjoying all that cheap power generated by coal which is totally safe!

A lot of the stuff dumped at Hanford had nothing to do with providing nuclear power. And being concerned about radiation in no way presumes that one is fine with coal power. I actually am basically unwilling to move to the northeastern U.S. because of the coal power there, in part because sulfur issues run in the family and coal plants spew lots of sulfur into the air.

Why does Erin Brockovich horrify you? Why do you assume Erin Brockovich is just a gawker playing looky-loo?

I didn't say anything like that. You are merely putting words in my mouth.
posted by Michele in California at 3:30 PM on February 19


To change gears... hey physicists, isn't there a way (now or in the future) to refine and reuse some of the radioactive stuff in a later-generation reactor?
posted by Artful Codger at 4:06 PM on February 19


Hanford estimated that 67 of those have leaked. Last week’s announcement makes 73. But a little leakage is nothing, really, when you consider the fact that during those years, Hanford actually produced more waste than the tanks could hold anyway. The leftovers were either sent to “holding facilities,” or dumped into massive trenches.

<facepalm>
posted by Reverend John at 7:41 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


I took the Hanford tour a few years ago and highly recommend it. Parts of the tour were led by retired Hanford workers who all made a point of explaining how healthy the local population was.

The best part was the page in the visitors handbook explaining what to do if you heard various alarms. For the Criticality Alarm, the instructions were: "RUN!"
posted by monotreme at 9:11 PM on February 19



To change gears... hey physicists, isn't there a way (now or in the future) to refine and reuse some of the radioactive stuff in a later-generation reactor?

Yes, Nuclear reprocessing, just not in the USA
posted by Iax at 5:05 AM on February 20


I took a tour of the Fast Flux Test Facility back in the spring of 2001. It is perhaps, one of the cleanest parts of Hanford, having been built in the 80s when they were actually thinking about problems of waste storage and also because the primary coolant loop was liquid sodium which is something you do not want reaching the outside air, let alone the water supply. (To take a second out of this recollection- a nuclear reactor cooled by liquid metal! The liquid metal is sodium! They encase the entire coolant loop in argon to prevent explosion in case of leakage! This place hit a bunch of sci-fi nerd buttons at once.) The second part is conjecture on my part, but the wikipedia article states that they were honored with an award in part for having such a low dose exposure.

It was a slightly melancholy place, as the people working there had been there since before the initial shutdown in 1993. They were good folks who believed in the power of the atom and that nuclear energy could and should be used responsibly. We were more interested in the physics of the reactor (I was a trainee at a research reactor at the time) than the environmental damage in other areas of the facility, but I do regret now not asking a little about that.

There were multiple PCB cooled electrical transformers (big ones, the size of a loveseat or so, not the ones you seen on telephone poles) that I noticed as we toured the place. I remember feeling distinctly nervous around the transformers, but not the facility. (The lifetime radiation exposure of a worker in that facility is less than a pack-a-day smoker's. I do not believe the claim can be made for other parts of Hanford though.) I mentioned this to our guide, who said that the danger of PCBs was overblown. I had recently read Neal Stephenson's Zodiac and chose to ignore his response, although I did not say anything.

In retrospect, I think it points to a certain level of both by-the-numbers risk analysis (which is common with the small sample of radiation workers I have met) and a faith in the power of science and industry. They viewed nuclear power as something that was just another way of generating power, nuclear physics as just another branch. There was an excitement about the physics, but it was the same excitement you see when you have an engineer explain a project that they are enthusiastically working on. There was no sense of the incredibly long term thinking needed for nuclear waste disposal, except a frustration that we had not started using Yucca Mountain yet. (This is something that I too was guilty of, although I still believe that having your radiation contained in a small known space, as it is with reactors, is better than distributing it throughout the world, as is done with coal plants. I am not the nuclear booster I used to be, but my hatred of coal remains.)

The place still probably looks like a time capsule from the late eighties in both the welcome area for visitors and the silent machinery in the main part of the facility itself. While the FFTF may have been a clean facility that did not leak any radiation, in a way I am glad that it is on its way to being decommissioned. The medical isotopes can be created elsewhere, the US no longer needs plutonium for either reactors or bombs and the physics, while incredibly cool, has been studied. I do feel sorry for the workers there who have to watch the project of their life be dismantled, but the rest Hanford is a big enough mess that, in a way, having working model reactor there seems to inject life into a place that should be long dead.

On preview: The FFTF could be used as a reprocessing facility if so desired. I am not sure how easy it was to get to the core (sodium melts at a measly 208 degrees F, but is pyrophoric, not something you exactly treat casually), but I know it could be used as an example for a breeder reactor.
posted by Hactar at 12:13 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Whenever I see Hanford in the news, I think about a ditty some local group did years ago to the tune of Turkey In The Straw... All I remember is the end of the song:

If you wonder why our birds are so much better than the rest,
It's cause Hanford Valley Chickens come with half a dozen breasts!

posted by xedrik at 7:44 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


not just the processing facilities:
Amid Toxic Waste, a Navajo Village Could Lose Its Land
CHURCH ROCK, N.M. — In this dusty corner of the Navajo reservation, where seven generations of families have been raised among the arroyos and mesas, Bertha Nez is facing the prospect of having to leave her land forever.

The uranium pollution is so bad that it is unsafe for people to live here long term, environmental officials say. Although the uranium mines that once pocked the hillsides were shut down decades ago, mounds of toxic waste are still piled atop the dirt, raising concerns about radioactive dust and runoff.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:15 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]


Yup. All that uranium they processed up there had to come from somewhere. I did some work on a mine site in the Sierra Nevada that since its inception was labeled as a "silver mine" on topo maps, when in fact it was a uranium strip mine. The tailings pile was littered with old campfire rings when I first visited the site, sometime before we installed a 6 foot tall fence around the whole facility. On the top of the pile (where the rings were...) you would get your annual allowed radiation dosage in something like a few minutes. And people had been camping there for decades.
Now the site has been capped and a collection system is in place thanks to the efforts of the Forest Service.
posted by Big_B at 6:35 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]


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