As problem-to-problem gridlock unfolds at Hanford with leaking radioactive waste storage tanks, Hanford is holding public meetings in Richland, WA and invites public comment, through August 16, 2013, regarding cleanup proposal for 300 Area. 300 Area is another part of the giant nuclear superfund site.
Hanford’s 300 Area covers 40 square miles along the Columbia River. 300 Area fabricated nuclear fuel for Hanford’s nine plutonium reactors (recall the steps in nuclear fuel manufacture to be mining/milling, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication). 300 Area was also an area of research into plutonium handling.
During these activities in the Cold War years,
They poured about 2 million gallons of radioactive liquid waste a day into sandy ponds and trenches right next to the Columbia River. Cleaning up buildings and material there has kept crews busy for 20 years.
One of the remaining jobs is to work on a 125-acre groundwater plume contaminated with uranium.
300 Area is a superfund priority site, along with 100 Area and 200 Area. The EPA explains that affected areas are groundwater, soil and sludges, surface water and air:
Groundwater is contaminated with uranium, volatile organic compounds, strontium-90, and tritium. Soils primarily contain uranium, cobalt-60, copper, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and chromium, but may also include other contaminants associated with research and development activities. DOE has detected uranium and TCE in groundwater adjacent to the Columbia River. People may be exposed to hazardous and radioactive substances through direct contact, accidental ingestion, and inhalation of contaminated particles, groundwater, soil, or surface water.
At first, the selected Orwellian remedy for cleanup of the above-described hot mess was “monitored natural attenuation,” which sounds an awful lot like “do nothing,” but this remedy was reevaluated, and more action was deemed appropriate. A lot of remove-treat-dispose has been done in 300 Area over the years, but at this stage 1) buildings will need to be demolished and removed before the soil underneath can be reached, but 2) the soil underneath some of the buildings is so highly radioactive that no worker can get anywhere close to the building to demolish it or remove the soil. Soil from underneath these buildings will need to be removed with remote equipment. Other buildings are deemed to be “high-risk, high-dose” for the workers, who must take extraordinary precautions.
The current plan, Department of Energy hydrologist Michael Thompson explains, is to “sequester that uranium in place.”
“In other words, chemically bind it up. We’re going to add phosphates to it. And the uranium then does not dissolve back into the groundwater and the groundwater will clean itself up within a reasonable amount of time,” he said.
Although I am no physicist, this sounds pretty good on the surface. Send that bad bad uranium a-packing once and for all with with a phosphate-and-nature deus ex machina. However, has such a thing ever been done successfully, on this scale, in the field?