Roadioactive waste: The hidden legacy of the hidden arms race

Saturday, November 23, 1991

By Robert Alvarez and Arjun Makhijani

Imagine a lake the size of Manhattan 40 feet deep. The U.S. government has dumped that much radioactive waste directly into the soil.

And that's just the beginning...

With over $24 billion in physical assets, an annual budget of about $8 billion, and a land base larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, the U.S. government’s program for producing nuclear weapons would rank toward the top of the Fortune 500. Like many private industries, this one has a major hazardous-waste problem. For the past four decades, a network of 280 facilities at some 20 weapons-making sites has produced massive quantities of highly radioactive waste. Because the Department of Energy runs these facilities in secret, with virtually no outside oversight from either Congress or environmental agencies, this dangerous material has been stored and buried in ways that threaten employees and the public.

Billions of gallons of radioactive wastes from making bomb-grade material have been dumped directly into soil and groundwater. Millions more gallons of concentrated waste have been stored in tanks, many of which have leaded. These wastes are now beginning to contaminate public water supplies. The wastes also form explosive gases that could rip the tanks open and spew the material over a large area, creating a Chernobyl-scale accident.

The Department of Energy (DOE), which manages the weapons program, estimates that the bill for cleaning up this waste could total $100 billion – far more than was spent to create fissionable materials in the first place, and much more than the cost of cleaning up the nation’s privately owned Superfund sites. This price is forcing Congress to reconsider the long term outlook for the nation’s nuclear-weapons program.

DOE has long argued that the Atomic Energy Acts of 1946 and 1954, which gave it sweeping powers of self-regulation, take precedence over environmental statutes such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Superfund laws. In the last several years, Congress has enacted legislation specifically requiring DOE to meet standards set by these laws. But although the agency has agreed to comply in some instances, the Reagan administration has thrown many obstacles in the way of enforcement, including policies that prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and States from suing DOE. Thus, many unsafe practices continue.

Map of the United States of America

States such as South Carolina, Ohio, and Washington, home of the major plants producing bombgrade materials, are trying to force DOE to comply with the law. These States are afraid that if nuclear-weapons production is cut back, they will have to clean up the waste, which is lethal in even the most minute quantities and will remain dangerous for thousands and even millions of years.

In response to public pressure, DOE has developed plans for cleaning up some severely contaminated sites. Yet these plans are so poorly thought out that they threaten to worsen the pollution instead of containing it. Indeed, a National Academy of Sciences panel recently concluded that DOE should drastically curtail its plans to store plutonium-contaminated soil in a New Mexico repository known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or WIPP, until doubts about the site’s safety can be answered.

Troubles at the Tank Farms

High-level military wastes result mainly from producing plutonium for nuclear weapons and reprocessing spent fuel from naval reactors. (High-level wastes are defined as those giving off .5 to 5 Btus of decay heat per hour per gallon.) These wastes contain not only an array of very concentrated, long-lived radioactive elements, including plutonium, but also substantial amounts of other hazardous materials such as mercury and solvents.

The wastes that pose the more serious immediate risk to workers and the public are liquids. These are largely produced at the Hanford site in Washington State, run by Westinghouse for DOE, and the Savannah River plant in South Carolina, run by Du Pont. Together the two facilities have generated nearly 100 million gallons of liquid high-level wastes.

Problems with handling these extremely radioactive substances stem from the origins of the nuclear-weapons program during World War II. Architects of the Manhattan Project devised the idea of storing the waste in tanks as an "interim emergency method" until longterm solutions could be found. Because stainless steel was then in short supply, officials decided to use carbon-steel tanks. But bomb wastes are acidic, which meant they had to be neutralized so they would not dissolve the carbon steel. The neutralization process – which involves adding lye and water to the wastes, and is still in use today – turned out to cause major problems.

First, adding water increases the volume of wastes, making disposal more difficult. And adding lye creates chemical reactions that allow the radioactive elements to precipitate out as sludge. Some 90 percent of the radioactivity becomes concentrated at the bottom of the tanks, where heat builds up and causes them to crack. At least 500,000 gallons of highly radioactive liquids have already escaped from the Hanford tanks because of such corrosion cracking. And 149 tanks at Hanford are so compromised that the wastes cannot be removed without risking further leaks. In some cases salts created by the neutralization process are plugging the cracks. If the contents were removed, the tanks would break wide open.

Although the tank option was supposed to be temporary, managers of the weapons program continued to store high-level wastes in carbon tanks after the war. (This practice continues today.) Du Pont called this the "most economical" storage method – one that would not interfere with the rapid buildup of the nation’s nuclear arsenal during the 1950’s and 1960’s. No timetable was set for emptying the tanks and devising a secure long term program for managing the waste.

When the tanks began to leak in the 1950’s and waste continued to build up, contractors such as Du Pone realized they had to reduce the waste’s volume and make its storage more secure. At Savannah River, managers decided to allow liquids fresh from the reprocessing plants to decay, and thus cool somewhat, for several months. This material was and still is then evaporated, which entails moving it to evaporators and then back to the original tanks. Thus "tank farms" have evolved with pumps, jets, and miles of pipe. However, much of this equipment has itself leaked and failed to work properly, and waste has spilled and contaminated workers as it has moved from tank to tank.

In response to early problems at Hanford, Du Pont installed concrete shells with partial steel linings around the tanks at Savannah River. Newer units have a full secondary steel liner. But even these "double-shell" tanks have had their share of major problems, since the concrete has not been an effective barrier to the hot wastes. By 1960, within five years of construction, 4 of the first 16 tanks as Savannah River had developed leaks in both the primary and secondary shells. Workers also discovered severe rust pits, a third of the way through tank walls, on 14 newer units built during 1980 and 1981. Nevertheless, these units entered service. This latest problem cast doubt on the integrity of all the 228 tanks at Hanford and Savannah River.

Dumping into Soil and Groundwater

Another key waste-management philosophy from the 1950’s and 60’s "dilution is the solution to pollution" – has also failed to withstand the test of time. DOE scientists have long maintained that low-level radioactive wastes from the weapons program could be safely discharged into the ground. They assumed that soil particles would trap the most dangerous materials and dilute them to negligible levels. Scientists also counted on the geology beneath the weapons site to further dilute dangerous substances and prevent them from reaching public water supplies. This "buffer zone" concept required very large land bases – Hanford occupies some 600 square miles and Savannah River 300 square miles.* The dilution hypothesis also convinced DOE and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), to regulate pollutants at the site boundaries rather than where they were discarded.

At Hanford, these concepts have led the agency to dump 200 billion gallons of radioactive waste into shallow evaporation ponds, seepage basins and burial pits, enough to create a lake the size of Manhattan 40 feet deep. Even now Savannah River discharges about 180,000 of radioactive and hazardous wastes into seepage basins every day. And in the 1940’s, Hanford deliberately piped 15 million gallons of high-level tank wastes containing over 10 pounds of plutonium into groundwater.

DOE has also buried dry plutonium-contaminated wastes in cardboard boxes, a practice that is supposed to end this year. Contractors at several sites only recently stopped rototilling radioactive and hazardous wastes into the soil.

The dilution theory has further led the agency to release large amounts of radioactive materials to the air. During the 1940’s, airborne discharges from Hanford’s reprocessing facilities were enormous – particularly of iodine-131. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently concluded that residents near Hanford received higher thyroid doses of radiophone than people living in the immediate vicinity of the Chernobyl reactor. Infants living in the Hanford area during the 1940’s and 1950’s may have received as much as 2,300 rems of radioactivity from cow’s milk – far more than children living near the Nevada bomb tests during the 50’s and 60’s. According to the CDC, more than 30,000 children may have increased their chances of contracting thyroid cancer 5 to 15-fold.

Radioactive releases have decreased dramatically since DOE began adding air-filtration equipment to the plants in the 1960’s. However, DOE’s new models predicting the radiation doses from releases that still occur may be highly inaccurate. In a recent experiment, DOE, the air force, and the National Weather Service tracked the movement of radioactive plumes from Savannah River. According to William Lawless, the former DOE official who managed the study, "The plumes were about 10 times more radioactive in New Jersey than [the model] claimed they would be at the site boundary" in South Carolina.

Evidence of water and soil pollution also began contradicting DOE’s own models soon after these practices began. For example, radioactivity has migrated through soil much more quickly than predicted, partly because the organic solvents speed its movement. Soil may also become saturated much faster than the models project. Experts at Savannah River has predicted that plutonium dumped in pits would take at least 1 million years to reach the water table. But plutonium at levels higher than those EPA allows was detected in on-site groundwater in less than 20 years. A 1986 report by the General Accounting Office found that 8 of 9 DOE weapons sites surveyed have "groundwater contaminated with radioactive and/or hazardous substances to high levels… Six facilities have soil contamination in unexpected areas, including offsite locations." An internal Du Pont study admits that severe contamination from decades of dumping "may extend well beyond the period which land control can be anticipated and indeed may exist for centuries or millennia."

The AEC called for an end to soil disposal in 1971, and set 1976 as the deadline for eliminating the practice. However, the agency reversed itself, and dumping continues today. DOE is supposed to be developing new standards for soil disposal that meet those set by States under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). But the Reagan administration has prohibited EPA from ordering the agency to comply, and has refused to allow DOE to pay civil fines to States or to seek funds from Congress for out-of-court settlements. The Justice Department has also prohibited EPA and States from reviewing DOE’s cleanup programs before they take effect. Thus, with little outside oversight, it’s difficult to determine whether the agency is improving its record.

Earthquakes and explosions

DOE’s tank farms pose serious risks in addition to those from cracks and leaks. The radioactive waste interacts with water and chemicals to form hydrogen and organic vapors, which could explode. An exploding tank would send massive amounts of radioactive material spewing into the air and onto the ground. Using Du Pont’s figures for such an accident, we estimate that residents living near Savannah River could contract as many as 20,000 additional cancers.

A massive explosion of radioactive wastes has already occurred in the Soviet Union. A 1957 accident in the Urals severely contaminated a large area and may have killed many people. The Soviet Union still denies that such an explosion took place.

The Savannah River plant faces an additional danger: that an earthquake could destroy its waste tanks. The largest and most destructive earthquake ever recorded in the eastern U.S. – measured 8 on the Richter scale – occurred in 1996 near Charleston, S.C., only 90 miles from the Savannah River site. The quake caused tremors over a 2 million-square-mile area and damage as far away as Chicago. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have both concluded that such a quake could occur again at or near the plant.*

Savannah River’s tanks have not been built to withstand severe quakes. Such an event could therefore release millions of gallons of radioactive waste to the area. Tens of thousands of excess cancers could result (not including immediate deaths among the thousands of workers on site), and cleanup could cost billions of dollars.

Even a smaller quake than that in 1886 could allow water in the severely contaminated shallow aquifers beneath Savannah River to enter the Tuscaloosa formation, a major regional aquifer. Du Pont claimed in a 1978 study that groundwater contamination from major tank ruptures would be "insignificant" because of the area’s geology. Yet no one can be sure that the underlying geological structure will remain stable for thousands of years.

Even routine operations at Savannah River could change the area’s geology. Du Pont now pumps out 3 billion gallons of water each year from the aquifer. According to University of Maryland geologist Yaron Sternberg, this could increase the "drawdown" of groundwater levels, and therefore the rate that contaminants migrate.

Employee safety suffer

DOE’s lax standards in handling radioactive waste affect the safety of its employees. According to recent reports by the General Accounting Office (GAO), DOE has failed to set up effective safety and health programs, and employees’ complaints about unsafe conditions have gone unheeded. At the Fernald plant in Ohio, where DOE processes uranium for use in plutonium-production reactors, GAO found that radiation-protection policies adopted in 1960 had not been fully implemented some 25 years later.

Workers who handle wastes face special risks and are exposed to the highest levels of radiation. The job of transferring wastes from one tank to another, for example, requires extensive hands-on maintenance and monitoring. And tanks must be inspected for cracks, a job that entails opening a "riser cover" (akin to a manhole cover), dangling a light, and looking in. Radioactive vapours contaminate the surrounding air during this process.

Workers at DOE weapons plants must often clean up after accidents and repair or decontaminate radioactive equipment. Remotely-operated equipment should be available for some of these dangerous jobs. But funding levels for handling waste have been too low to develop such machinery. Especially in emergencies, the common practice is instead to mobilize hundreds or thousands of employees. For example, Du Pont sent in over 850 workers to clean up a severe spill in 1970.

Stack releases have also posed serious risks to employees. In the late 1950’s, a stack leak at Hanford’s first reprocessing plant went undetected for an entire year and was not fully repaired for still another. Records released 40 years later show that AEC officials became aware that both guards and construction workers were being exposed to plutonium levels far above existing standards (which have since been considerably tightened). Yet the agency decided not to issue warnings or to take protective measures. Concern about such risks recently prompted the Centers for Disease Control to call for epidemiological studies of Hanford construction workers.

DOE itself has done 12 different studies showing that employees exposed to radiation contract excess numbers of cancers and other diseases. According to some of the reports, including one performed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, workers involved in maintenance, cleanup, and construction bear the highest risk of dying from cancer.

Devising a cleanup plan

In 1983 DOE submitted a plan to Congress for long-term management of its wastes. The plan has three components:

  • Wastes contaminated with plutonium and other heavy elements will be processed and buried in the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), a repository in Carlsbad, N.M.
  • High-level tank sludge will be solidified into glass and buried with wastes from commercial nuclear power in an underground repository. Congress recently designated Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the site for this waste after other targeted states mounted major political opposition.
  • The low-level radioactive and hazardous liquids that remain in the tanks will be mixed with cement – in a process called "grouting" – and poured into concrete-lined pits on site.

Unfortunately, these plans are already several years behind schedule. And potential problems with each component cast doubt on DOE’s commitment to developing an effective cleanup program.

For example, the plans for WIPP propose that, because of natural "creep," the salt bed will slowly close over the drums of wastes. Engineers assume that this geologic process will keep the wastes secure for thousands of years until the radioactivity is spent. But a 1983 study by scientists at Sandia National Laboratory and the State of New Mexico showed that brine could enter the site before creep seals it, saturating the wastes and possibly allowing them to escape to nearby water supplies. Perhaps that is why DOE has avoided complying with EPA standards requiring documentation of how the repository will work.

A recent National Academy of Sciences panel confirmed that DOE should perform further tests before proceeding, and criticized DOE for not having adequately studied the problem. The panel recommended that WIPP accept only 3 percent of the 120,000 barrels of waste ultimately destined for the site until the brine issue is resolved.

DOE’s failute to thoroughly study the site is reminiscent of the AEC’s 1963 choice of Lyone, Kans., for salt-mine disposal of radioactive wastes. Water pumped into test holes mysteriously disappeared. It turned out that previous mining and drilling for oil and gas had made the site "a bit like a piece of Swiss cheese," according to an official of the Kansas Geological Survey.

Similar problems could occur at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the site for storing "glassified" high-level wastes. These wastes will be very hot from intense radioactivity. Natural low pressure at the site could draw in water, which could flash into steam and disintegrate the glass. Again, DOE has not determined whether this form of disposal is suited to the area’s geology.

Moreover, DOE has no experience operating a glassification plant, even on a pilot basis. Yet a $1 billion facility is now being built at Savannah River and is set to begin operating within a year. And the glassification process is complicated and dangerous. Workers must remove sludge from the tanks, evaporate other high-level liquids and salts, and convert them into slurry. All these concentrated wastes will then be mixed with molten glass, and the substance cooled into cylinders.

France has operated a glassification plant, but it doesn’t provide a good model because its wastes are acidic. DOE, in contrast, must handle neutralized material that could create explosive gases, and also form salts that plug jets and pipes. Merely transferring the highly radioactive wastes from the tanks where they are now stored to new ones for processing into glass could result in spills, as it has in the past. A spill of several thousand gallons of radioactive sludge onto the plant floor would pose a radiation hazard so severe that it could cripple any further operations.

DOE now wants to build a pilot-scale glassification plant at Hanford, and such a facility would indeed provide much-needed experience. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of putting the cart before the horse, since the full-scale facility would start up before the pilot plant. Because any further delays would only postpone cleanup, DOE should run the main plant as a pilot operation, monitoring all processes carefully.

Dangers of radioactive cement

Grouting, the disposal method for low-level tank liquids, is yet another example of DOE’s penchant for choosing the cheapest, - but not necessarily most cost-effective – option. These liquids, called "supermate," are more dilute than sludge, but they still contain highly radioactive elements. DOE plans to mix some of these wastes with cement and place the grout permanently into shallow vaults on site.

The amount of long-lived radionuclides and other toxic substances that seep from these cement blocks over thousands of years will far exceed the amount already dumped into the ground. For example, DOE plans to allow 20 million times as much iodine – 129 (half-life of 17 millions years) to leach from the cement that Savannah River’s two reprocessing plants routinely discarded over 20 years.

DOE had to loosen its plutonium soil-dumping standard to accommodate this form of waste disposal. The new standard – which permits 10 times more plutonium to be discarded – also means that only 30,000 cubic meters of soil will have to be moved from Hanford to WIPP, instead of some 12 million cubic meters. Without this change, there would not be enough room in the New Mexico repository to house all the contaminated soil.

The process of making cement will also greatly increase the volume of low-level waste. Savannah River alone will produce about 1 million cubic feet of radioactive cement annually for 30 years. This is tripple the total volume of low-level waste generated there during the first 22 years of operation, and twice the amount in the six dumps serving the nation’s commercial nuclear power program. In our view, this contradicts the philosophy behind cleaning up any kind of pollution: the goal is to remove it, not to create more of it. At the very least, DOE should separate out long-lived radioactive elements before making the cement.

Solvents in the waste could pose special problems, since they may make the cement fall apart quickly, yet DOE has not completed studies determining how well the grout will hold up. Incredibly, in an environmental impact statement for cleanup operations at Hanford, the agency says it chose this form of disposal on the grounds that "cement structures built more than 3,000 years ago are still standing." Obviously, most cement buildings erected even a few hundred years ago no longer exist. Thus, this form of waste disposal could dramatically worsen the already severe contamination of DOE’s weapons-producing sites. At the very least, it means that the sites will be unavailable for other uses for centuries.

Another alternative for liquid wastes deserves further exploration. In "calcining," a method of converting them into a powder, the wastes are sprayed through an atomizer and dried at high temperature. DOE has used this process at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, apparently without major problems, for over 20 years. A program to calcine the wastes at Hanford was killed in the late 1950’s after the funds were used to build another production reactor. Calcining would not necessarily cost less in the long run, since the power would have to be converted to another form for permanent disposal, but it would buy time until all the options could be studied.

The long-term outlook

The soaring capital costs of waste cleanup are making the price of producing nuclear weapons astronomical. Roughly 45 cents of each dollar spent to make bomb-grade material now does toward managing wastes. Cleanup and waste-handling operations already consume nearly $1 billion yearly, almost an eighth of DOE’s budget. And DOE’s Joseph Salgado recently told a congressional subcommittee that full cleanup of both radioactive and hazardous waste at DOE sites could cost $100 billion.

As Frank Gaffney, former assistant secretary of defense, has written in the Wall Street Journal, "No industrialist could stay in business with the rate of capitalization sustained for years by the nation’s nuclear-production infrastructure. It is increasingly unclear whether the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons complex can either."

These costs are forcing DOE and Congress to reconsider the need for more plutonium. The aging reactors at Hanford and Savannah River must soon be replaced if production is to continue. Plutonium output has dropped substantially since 1986, despite a massive infusion of funds to shore up the decrepit facilities. DOE recently placed the Hanford N-reactor on "cold standby" because of public concern that it was unsafe; it may never reopen. Savannah River is operating its three reactors at only 40 percent capacity.

These plants have produced some 100 metric tons of plutonium over the past 40 years. Indeed, Energy Secretary John Herrington recently told Congress that the United States is "awash in plutonium." Thus, new material may not be needed. Progress in arms control could provide further impetus to sharply curtail plutonium production.

Whether to build a new tritium reactor to replace the aging facility at Savannah River is a more pressing issue. Tritium has a half-life of only 12.3 years, so it must constantly be replenished in existing warheads. Tritium production does not create as much high-level waste, but cleanup is still a serious issue. Tritium is the most ubiquitous pollutant both on and off the Savannah River site, for example, and it remains radioactive for over one hundred years. Further need for this material deserves careful study.

In our view, plutonium production, as well as soil dumping of radioactive waste, should halt immediately: the public dangers are simply too high. DOE’s de facto outlaw status in complying with environmental laws must also change. EPA should be able to enforce the same standards for DOE as for the private sector. And the only way to ensure that DOE effectively cleans up its wastes is to set up a longterm spending mechanism such as Superfund.

Regardless of how these issues are resolved, the radioactive and hazardous material that is the legacy of the nuclear arms race will affect surrounding communities for centuries. As Sen. John Glenn has said, "The costs of cleaning up these sites will be extraordinarily high, but the costs of doing nothing will be higher. After all, what good does it do to protect ourselves from the Soviets by building nuclear weapons if we poison ourselves in the process?"

Reprinted with permission from Technology Review, copyright 1988.

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