RUSHTON: A looming disaster in Washington State against which others pale

As the world agonizes over climate change and the progenitors of environmental apocalypse berate us all for creating a world that cannot survive, somehow the disaster that is located just a few miles south of the B.C. border is overlooked, ignored or is out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

That disaster, the remains of the nuclear age that made Hanford Atomic Works, or as it is now known – Hanford nuclear reservation – was the centre of the western world for development of atomic bombs. Those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were developed there, as were most of the warheads that currently lie dormant in silos across America, housed in stealth submarines and cruise missiles.

The disaster of Hanford is not so much the danger and devastation that its products could, did and can create, but the waste that was created as a by-product of the nuclear age.

As a result, in the starkly beautiful desert lands of southeastern Washington State, there is a volume of waste that boggles the mind, that is almost impossible to make safe, and is and has been for years working its way through the ground into the Columbia River.

Eventually, unless it is somehow contained, it will also get into the atmosphere. Paramount among the concerns to render the stuff relatively harmless is that in the process there is the potential for explosions that could, in effect, mimic the results of a bomb with all the attendant radiation and nuclear fall-out.

The problem with Hanford is that its cleanup is monstrously huge, and perhaps impossible to achieve. There are massive amounts of nuclear waste stored in leaking underground vaults, in ‘ponds’ and bunkers. In addition, no one is even aware of what some of the chemical mixes really contain, and therefore the challenge on how to remediate the ‘stew’ is largely unknown.

The potential cost of the clean-up … in excess of 15 billion dollars, according to some, more than 12 billion by the optimists. And in a best-case scenario, it won’t be completed until 2047, more than a century after the first waste tanks were buried, tanks that weren’t estimated to last more than a few years.

Back in the late ’60s and ’70s, I often travelled through southern Washington, along the Columbia River and, passing the Hanford reservation, would shudder at the thought of what was going on there … at what must have been going through the minds of folks who worked there building weapons that were destined, in the name of ‘freedom,’ to potentially annihilate the world.

Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and with nuclear de-escalation, Hanford was finally closed in 1987. Its latent ability to cause mass death and destruction remains, however, in its vast repository of waste. While the brains that created the stuff knew how to build bombs, few bothered to think of processes to remediate their by-products, and fewer still knew enough, or cared enough, to build storage facilities that would last a millennium.

In fact, what is there probably has created a toxic mix that will never be rendered harmless. What may make matters worse, is that there may not be enough money available to do it, either.

Regardless, the effort must be made, and hopefully the financial decision-makers are not bent on taking the lowest bidder.

In the meantime the potential for disaster festers on, threatening not just eastern Washington but, with prevailing winds, everywhere else within a thousand (thousands?) kilometres.

I’m not sure there is much any of us can do about this, other than to be aware of it, and to recognize that carbon emissions and global warming might be the least of our worries in the future.

markrushton@abbynews.com