State stays focused on cleanup to protect future generations

In the spring, Tri-City community members with science backgrounds are called upon to help judge science fairs, teach at Salmon Summit and educate the public at the Hanford Health and Safety Expo.

Our Nuclear Waste Program, one of the agencies overseeing Hanford cleanup, usually supports those events in force.

Not this year, of course. The global COVID-19 pandemic has waylaid all of those public events.

Washington state employees were directed to telecommute, if possible, well before Gov. Jay Inslee issued his Stay Home, Stay Healthy order. State information technology staff have done an outstanding job ensuring that your public servants still can perform essential work.

Our program, which oversees the mixed and chemical waste cleanup at Hanford, went from a handful of staff who worked from home on occasion, to a closed office with only a few staff on hand in case a need arises.

A time to reflect: what matters most

This pause in our normal routine creates an interesting opportunity to evaluate our lives – what’s important, what isn’t.

As environmental regulators, the Washington Department of Ecology ensures that air, land and water resources are protected for people and wildlife.

Many on our program team can work on permitting, or read and respond to reports from their dining room office. Inspectors and those who perform regular field work must now assess what is essential, and what work can wait.

Our partners at the U.S. Department of Energy have suspended activities on site to what they deem “min-safe,” the level of maintenance and supervision required to prevent equipment failure or a lapse in safety.

In our work to clean up Hanford as guided by Tri-Party Agreement (TPA) milestones, we rarely talk about long-term stewardship or institutional controls at Hanford. We rarely articulate how decisions made today will impact people 100, 500 or 1,000 years from now. 

For example, the 2012 Hanford Tank Closure Waste Management Environmental Impact Statement calculated that if waste isn’t removed from Hanford tanks, it could reach groundwater in a few hundred years, and from there eventually into the Columbia River at unsafe levels.

This is why the state will not back down on the requirement to remove as much waste as possible from tanks and turn it into glass for long-term storage.

Soil contaminants will migrate

While groundwater pump and treat is proving successful at reducing some contamination plumes, other contaminants remain.

By some estimates, there are about 450,000 curies of radioactivity in the vadose zone (the area between the surface and groundwater) under Hanford’s Central Plateau. Stronger rain events, projected to be brought on by climate change, could drive contaminants to the groundwater sooner.

Areas will remain where we don’t have the technology to clean the soil.

As buildings are demolished, debris is packaged and sent to the huge Hanford landfill, the Environmental Restoration and Disposal Facility (ERDF).

When it is closed, an engineered cover, or cap, designed to prevent rain or snow from pushing contamination to the soil and groundwater will be installed over ERDF. The manmade plateau will likely be “restored” – covered with native grasses. Regardless, it will require some oversight for hundreds of years.

Protecting future generations

When we make cleanup decisions, they must be based on protecting people who are here 500 years from now.

As long as human habitation is constant, we can keep people safe. New technologies may develop that even allow us to capture contaminants we can’t today.

While efforts are in full swing to practice social distancing and “flatten the curve,” this pandemic is a reminder that, in theory, something could literally wipe out most of the human race.

It is safe to assume (since history repeats) that the progeny of the survivors would eventually migrate back into our area. How do we keep future settlers from building on top of ERDF, or drilling a drinking water well?

Signage would be long buried and who knows what language might exist even if signs were miraculously found.

When the TPA was created, people thought cleanup would last only 25 or 30 years. We now know final cleanup and vitrification of Hanford’s most dangerous waste won’t be complete until at least the 2070s.

As such we heavily support numerous efforts designed to build a future Hanford workforce of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) experts and skilled craft people. Perhaps someday we’ll need to hire philosophers and futurists!

Milestones have changed over the years, but the Nuclear Waste Program remains laser-focused on our responsibility to not only the safety of Generation X and millennials, but to their great-great-grandchildren and beyond.

Alex Smith is the nuclear waste program manager for the Washington Department of Ecology.

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