Plutonium Cleanup in Washington State Could Take Millennia

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It’s not out of the question that the United States might not be around long enough to see the complete cleanup of its Cold War legacy in Washington State.

Not far from the banks of the Columbia River resides the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, once the most important manufacturer of plutonium for America’s nuclear arsenal. Today, the 560-square-mile decommissioned facility is teeming with plutonium, one of the most toxic substances on earth (minute particles of it can cause cancer), with a half-life of 24,000 years.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimated back in the mid-1990s that Hanford had more than 111,000 kilograms of plutonium to dispose of. A former department official, Robert Alvarez, recently went over old Energy reports and determined that the original math was way off. It turns out that Hanford has three times more plutonium than was calculated in 1996.
The New York Times reported that the plutonium doesn’t “pose a major radiation hazard now, largely because it is under ‘institutional controls’ like guards, weapons and gates.” But the highly radioactive material “is certain to last longer than the controls,” meaning the systems put in place by the U.S. government could be long gone by the time the plutonium reaches a safe level for the surrounding area.
-Noel Brinkerhoff
Analysis Triples U.S. Plutonium Waste Figures (by Matthew Wald, New York Times)


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