The "Dirtiest Place on Earth" Still Has a Lot of Nuke Waste to Clean Up

By Eliza Strickland | January 21, 2009 5:10 pm

plutonium bottleIt’s one of the biggest cleanup jobs the United States has ever undertaken, and it’s a long way from being done. Near the Columbia River in Hanford, Washington, contractors are decontaminating a nuclear fuel processing site that has 177 underground tanks holding 53 million gallons of nuclear waste, some of which has already leaked into the soil and groundwater. And the cleanup crew has learned that the known hazards are just the beginning. [S]loppy work by the contractors running the site saw all kinds of chemical and radioactive waste indiscriminately buried in pits underground over the 40 years Hanford was operational, earning it the accolade of the dirtiest place on Earth. In 2004, clean-up work uncovered a battered, rusted, and broken old safe containing a glass jug inside which was 400 millilitres of plutonium [New Scientist].

In a new study published in Analytical Chemistry [subscription required], researchers announced that the plutonium inside that jug had quite an impressive and terrible pedigree. Analyzing the sample’s isotopes and studying the historical records revealed that it was processed into plutonium-239 in December of 1944, as part of the first batch of weapons-grade plutonium ever made. Just eight months later, Hanford plutonium was used in the nuclear bomb that fell on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

The overall cleanup of the Hanford site is expected to cost about $50 billion, and the remediation effort currently gets about $2 billion per year from the Department of Energy. But that money hasn’t been enough to keep the project on track; managers have announced that they will miss 23 deadlines this year due to lack of funds. That’s one reason senators whose districts include Department of Energy sites such as Hanford are pushing for stimulus money to rejuvenate local economies with cleanup work and, they hope, provide freshly scrubbed land for industrial development. “This is exactly the kind of thing a stimulus package should be composed of,” said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho [AP].

The newly appointed Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, pledged during his confirmation hearings last week to expedite the cleanup effort at Hanford and other nuclear waste sites. “Cleanup of these materials is a complicated, expensive long-term project, but I pledge to you to do my best to accelerate these efforts in order to protect human health and the environment, and to return contaminated lands to beneficial use,” Chu said…. Under questioning from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Chu said there should be a “significant” amount of additional cleanup money in a stimulus bill Congress is expected to consider in the coming weeks [Tri-City Herald].

Related Content:
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DISCOVER: End of the Plutonium Age dives into the enduring mysteries of plutonium
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Image: Department of Energy, showing the safe and the plutonium-filled bottle found at the Hanford site

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Bystander


  • Bill

    You know, you’d think something like this would only occur in a developing nation or other “Third World” country. But no, it’s the good old USA!!!

  • Danorock

    This is the kind of thing that happens everywhere, except that most developing nations don’t have enough of a nuclear energy program/weapons-grade plutonium to have this much waste! Nuclear waste is one of those things that we have been “sweeping under the carpet” as if by putting our heads in the sand, it will disappear. Surprise! Nuclear waste doesn’t go away when you bury it.

  • Tommy

    I can tell you without a doubt that Hanford is not the dirtiest place on earth; that statement is just a journalistic spin of nonsense. How about all the former U.S.S.R. sites we have cleaned up….yes us the good old USA. How about China and India….I am so sick of the liberal journalistic spin to always show that the USA always does things in an endeavor as a negative and then they blow it way out of proportion and spin it as if it is only the USA with these kinds of problems to deal with….has everyone forgotten Chernobyl….or was that just and inconvenient truth. PLEASE PLEASE CAN WE GET JOURNALISM WITHOUT THE NONSENSE OF CONTEXTUALIZED FACTS.

  • geeta

    Yes, I know. But this must have been one of those wastes that could not be shipped over to a ‘developing’ or ‘third world’ country.

  • Malwae

    I have to agree with Tommy – I think there is a bias of documentation here. Hanford is in a place where journalists aren’t mangled in horrific prisons for describing something that’s less than positive about their country, so we know all about it. I lived in Nukus for 2 1/2 years (that’s where the Aral Sea used to be). Un-f****ing believable – but Uzbek journalists who write about stuff other than how awesome their president is tend not to be heard from again.

    (Think chemical and biological weapons factories that were just up and abandoned in 1991 – no controlled shutdown, no containment, nothing. The local population has some crazy health issues as a result).

  • Kent

    This was the location where the largest nuclear arsenal in the world was produced. There is little chance that Uzbekistan could possibly have produced something of this magnitude. Russia, maybe – but not confirmed. So I think this is actually an accurate statement.

    Also, research the Hanford downwinders if you want to see some crazy health issues.

  • Tommy

    The former U.S.S.R. at one time had a nuclear arsenal approx. one and half times more in numbers of missiles and subs than the USA, so once again this statement of Hanford as the “dirtiest place on earth” is total nonsense and no the USA and Russia have never shipped waste to developing or third world countries; if you are referring to the nuclear byproducts shipped to be used in the manufacturing of smoke detectors and X-ray machines then yes we have shipped byproducts not waste…and yet another fact taken out of context or twisted to validate someones belief or political leaning and agenda…and as far as Uzbekistan goes it was at one time under the iron curtain and most definitely has former U.S.S.R sites of research and development of nuclear and chemical weapons and production in general within its boarders

  • geeta

    I am sorry, I didn’t think the article was about USSR/Russia.
    And I meant all shippable waste (waste meaning stuff deemed economically not beneficial and/or stuff that make a place look dirty – byproduct or otherwise).
    And also, I had absolutely no ‘beliefs’ or ‘political leaning and agenda…’ – politics is equally dirt all over.
    And finally, I have no further interest in reacting, especially to fanatic and defensive ‘agendas’ – so go on and on…

  • Tommy

    geeta you have totally missed the point of why the article is wrong in its’ contextualization of Hanford as being “the dirtiest place on earth” and why it is so easy for journalism to obviously sway ones opinions therefor bring ones beliefs into a narrow focus and in turn miss the very bigger aspect of what is important about how we get the many many dirtiest places on earth…and yes everyone has a political leaning and agenda…just as I do…fanatic and defensive I am not….very objective I am…and if you can’t handle a intelligent debate or insight then follow the old saying “if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen”

  • Bonsai King

    That . . . is really a problem . . .

  • burningrabbit

    America is a 3rd world country by the definition of reckless waste of nuclear waste. By any other name our environment is polluted, believe that. This is the result of using nuclear energy. Posters want to throw this energy source in the faces of skeptics as a safe alternative but ignore this environmental consequence. As a wise person wrote about this ‘solution,’ if this is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question. I am so disappointed in reading about the true scope of this environmental damage. There is no exit from the destructiveness of mass human life.

  • Erg

    Hanford’s history includes the Columbia River once considered “the most radioactive” but other places on this planet have since caught up. It remains irrefutable that PLANET-WIDE we have no way to protect succeeding generations or ourselves from the effect of water soluble ionizing-radionuclide’s dissolution into our environment. There they assimilate, accumulate, concentrate and contaminate our biosphere causing genetic damage.

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    I am looking forward to the new ideas to come, and I am hopeful we can solve this and many other problems, with a co-operative attitude.

  • Lindsey

    i am not an american but i opposed to what they said that hanford is the dirtiest place on earth… how about india, china and ussr… hmmm…

  • Brian Too

    To all posters focusing on the phrase “the dirtiest place on Earth”:

    Congratulations on missing the point! Out of that entire article, THAT’S what you chose to focus on??

    I give you a reading comprehension score of 3 out of 10, and a nitpicking score of 10 out of 10.

    Oh, and it was you who politicized the discussion. The article never once says anything like “those darned Republicans/Conservatives polluted Hanford”. It was you who introduced the phrase “liberal media bias” and thereby brought an irrelevant political slant into the discussion. It doesn’t matter who said “Hanford is the dirtiest place on Earth” or whether that is strictly true. Hanford is plenty dirty and I would think twice before moving there. We aren’t talking about a surplus of incorrectly disposed grocery bags. That plutonium in the safe (IN A SAFE!!) wouldn’t decay to safe levels on it’s own until many thousands of years had passed.

  • Lisa

    I work for a non-profit group that focuses its attention on Hanford. We use the phrase, “most contaminated site in the Western hemisphere” when introducing people to Hanford issues. But, I agree with Brian Too, this is not what we need to focus on in this article — what is more important is the toxic legacy the US’ Cold War defense activities has for left us & the generations after us. Despite an influx of $2 BILLION in stimulus funding at Hanford, recent proposed delays in the schedules for Hanford Cleanup have us talking about the decade 2050 – and that’s if the US Department of Energy stays on track with cleanup, a task for which it does NOT have a good record!

    The public needs to take a stand to let the Obama administration know that this is not ok. We can’t leave toxic, highly radioactive nuclear waste in the environment to seep into the Columbia River for our children and grandchildren to clean up. Submit a formal comment to USDOE by emailing today! And visit our blog for (almost) daily updates on Hanford news & events.

  • wrkrcoop

    Well, this is an old thread, but I do have to say that “Tommy” has ‘totally missed the point’ that it doesn’t matter whether Hanford is the ‘dirtiest place on earth’ or not. The fact is, it is severely contaminated, and this situation has to be dealt with. Arguing over some journalist’s choice of headline is a bizarre and possibly destructive red herring.

    Hanford is a deeply contaminated site, and we have to fund its cleanup. This remains true regardless of whether Chernobyl or other sites are ‘dirtier’ or not. Tommy’s diatribe has one function only: to denigrate real problems. People who get caught up in “this vs. that” debates, like Tommy did, need to take a step back and think about actual situations, rather than comparative hyperbole.


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