The  Nuclear Option

Lessons from Fukushima for the Northwest

Officials from TEPCO (above) toured the Hanford Site in January 2013 to learn about cleanup technologies that could be used at Fukushima. Spent nuclear fuel rods that were in underwater storage at Hanford. The fuel was moved out of the reactor basins and into a dry storage facility a few miles away from the Columbia River in 2004. The fuel was moved to stop the corrosion of the metal reactor fuel.

The Hanford Site, also known as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, or most often, simply Hanford, is home to the nation’s largest nuclear waste dump. The 586-square-mile site on a plateau near the Columbia River is also the location of the Pacific Northwest’s only commercial nuclear reactor. Hanford was started in 1943 as a result of the Manhattan Project and America’s attempts to develop the atomic bomb. As Hanford’s own website puts it, “Hanford’s ultimate triumph came with the nuclear explosion above Japan in August 1945, effectively ending World War II.”

But many don’t see the atomic bomb as a “triumph” and have long objected both to the continuing mess left at Hanford from years of plutonium production as well as to the presence of the nearby nuclear reactor — the Columbia Generating Station (CGS).

The earthquake and resulting tsunami that damaged Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in 2011 was the biggest nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine. Continuing news reports, some real, some exaggerated, have fanned the flames of concerns over both nuclear power and nuclear contamination. And nuclear foes say that Fukushima and the CGS reactor share design flaws.

Fukushima’s nuclear disaster is prone to rumors, but there is a basis to the fears over meltdowns and radiation leaks. Adding to the uncertainties in the Northwest stemming from Fukushima is the fact that we not only have a nuclear power plant but also a nuclear waste dump that could face risks from earthquakes and even flooding if dams on the Columbia are breached. We still have lessons to learn from the disaster in Japan.

In the water

It’s almost 5,000 miles from Eugene to Japan, but Oregonians worry about radiation slowly making its way across the Pacific to the Northwest shores. There is no question of whether radiation leaked into the ocean from Fukushima — Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced in July that 71,895 gallons of contaminated water were pouring into the sea each day, more than two years after the accident. There is also no question of whether that radiation can make it from Japan to the U.S. coast — scientists at Stanford found young Pacific bluefin tuna arriving in California carrying two of Fukushima’s signature radioisotopes, cesium-134 and cesium-137.

People react on a gut level to nuclear power and radiation. “Nuclear has had a really complicated history,” says Kathryn Higley of Oregon State University’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics. She points out that the initial applications were weapons-based and that there was instantaneous, massive death at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and those incidents stay with you. Higley says this leads to people becoming far more concerned about a nuke plant 300 miles away than they are about getting an X-ray or CT scan, which she says gives a stronger dose of radiation than at any operating nuclear facility in the country. The Hanford Site is about 350 miles from Eugene, in southeast Washington.

A 2013 World Health Organization health risk assessment says that based on “the current state of scientific knowledge” there is no discernible increase in health risks from the Fukushima event expected outside Japan, though in Japan itself “lifetime risk for some cancers may be somewhat elevated above baseline rates in certain age and sex groups that were in the areas most affected.”

Lessons from Fukushima

The public information people at Hanford or at the Columbia Generating Station are quick to start any discussion of lessons that could be learned from the Fukushima disaster by making clear that Hanford and CGS are not the same thing: Hanford is a nuclear waste dump, former nuclear weapon production facility and the subject of a massive cleanup. CGS, while located on the Hanford Site, is a separate nuclear power plant that sells its electricity to the Bonneville Power Administration.

Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) buys power from BPA and in a May 2012 memo to commissioners it cited BPA’s costs for running CGS as one reason for a possible 6 percent rate increase for EWEB customers in 2014-15.

A 9.0 earthquake hit Fukushima, and the nuclear reactors there withstood that quake, according to David Swank, the assistant vice president of engineering at CGS. He says the Fukushima plant in fact responded quite well to the earthquake, even though it was beyond the design base, and it ran on diesel generators after the quake took out power “and everything worked according to design.”

Gerry Pollet of Heart of America Northwest, a citizens’ watchdog group for the Hanford cleanup, calls that “a lie,” pointing out that without getting inside the reactor, it’s impossible to see what damage might have occurred.

One clear cause of the problems at Fukushima was the tsunami, something the plant design didn’t account for, that took out those backup diesel generators. Even after a nuclear plant shuts down, energy is needed to circulate water over the hot fuel rods to keep them cool, and then all that contaminated water needs to go somewhere. Fukushima is a boiling water reactor, as is the Columbia Generating Station and, like Fukushima, CGS is situated where an earthquake could affect it.

According to Pollet, “We have to inform the public that [CGS] is designed the same as Fukushima’s reactors with its fuel storage pool several stories above the reactor, where it is most susceptible to the much higher earth movement that we now know is possible.” He says the plant was not built to withstand the size of the quakes we now know can hit the Northwest.

An October report from Physicians for Social Responsibility by geologist Terry Tolan says, “The earthquake standards set for the Northwest’s only commercial nuclear power plant are at least 300 percent lower than should be required.” The group said that given the design similarities to the Japanese reactors, “We are concerned that if an earthquake cracked the elevated spent-fuel pool, cooling water would drain and we could have a Fukushima-like scenario on our hands.”

Washington Public Power Supply System (aka WPPSS or “whoops”), which built CGS, then known as Hanford Reactor Number 2, sued GE in 1985 for breach of contract, misrepresentation and fraud, saying that GE did not fully inform the supply system about problems it was having with the giant steel containment vessel that surrounds the reactor system, according to news reports at the time.

Mike Paoli of Energy Northwest (formerly WPPSS) says comparing the Fukushima General Electric Mark I to CGS’s GE Mark II is “unfair.” The Fukushima plant “is an older design and there are a lot of other factors including as to how folks in Japan are trained, which is different,” he says. Paoli says CGS is awaiting the results of a seismic study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory due out March 2015.

“These folks don’t have a corner market on the desire to be safe and healthy,” he says of CGS critics. He stresses that CGS uses “defense in depth — the concept of having redundancy backing up redundancy backing up redundancy.”

As a result of Fukushima, Swank says CGS looked at disasters beyond an earthquake that could potentially affect the nuclear plant. These included everything from ash fall from a volcanic eruption to wildfires. Like Fukushima, CGS has backup diesel generators, and though it does not face tsunami danger, CGS was designed to withstand 9 inches of rainfall in a 24-hour period. Dam failure was also examined, Swank says, using flood maps provided by the Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dams on the Columbia. “Flood level would not get to the plant,” Swank says, providing nothing has changed in the 30 years since the mapping was done.

Higley says after Fukushima the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was quick to not only assist in Japan but also to institute reviews and reforms in the U.S. But for Pollet, who in addition to his work at Heart of America Northwest is a legislator in Washington state, that’s not quite enough. He says the NRC refused to consider all the facts, including the plant’s proximity to a nuclear waste site, when it re-licensed CGS in 2012.

Nancy Matela of Alliance for Democracy and the Coalition for No Nukes Northwest, who recently gave a talk in Eugene calling to shutdown CGS, points to numbers that show the nuclear plant supplies only about 4 percent of the Northwest’s power. She says we would be better off conserving more energy than using dangerous nuclear power.

The Hanford factor

Pollet says that when it comes to the dangers from a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, you can’t really separate Hanford from CGS.

Hanford has a troubled history and has been criticized for its cleanup (or lack of it) for years.

According to Heart of America, as much as 450 billion gallons of contaminated wastes were dumped into the soils at Hanford, including a million gallons of liquid “high-level” nuclear waste over the years that it was producing weapons-grade plutonium from uranium fuel rods with its nine production reactors along the Columbia River. Dieter Bohrmann, communications manager for the Washington Department of Ecology, which supervises cleanup at Hanford, calls the plutonium process “inefficient” and says it created a lot of waste for a small amount of plutonium.

Bohrmann says that there was a lot of contaminated water discharged in the 1940s and ’50s during production, and 60 years ago radioactive materials could be detected all the way to the mouth of Columbia River. But he says, “Is Hanford threatening the Columbia today? Then no, we don’t believe that it is.”

One concern at Hanford is leaking storage tanks. Bohrmann says there are 149 single-shell tanks built from the 1940s through the ’60s that were only built to last 20 years or so. There are 28 double-shell tanks from the ’60s and ’70s. He says the tanks were seen as a temporary fix, and “they knew they were dealing with some nasty waste.” A lot of waste was discharged directly to the soil and directly to the river, Bohrmann says, “but the high-level waste they thought should be contained in something safer than pumping it into the ground.”

He says, “Here we are 70 years later and still trying to address that.” According to the Oregon Department of Energy, Hanford has 177 underground storage tanks that hold about 56 million gallons of highly radioactive waste. At least 68 single-shell tanks are suspected or known to have leaked about one million gallons of highly radioactive waste into the soil. Hanford thought it had stabilized the tank leaks by 2004 after it pumped liquids out of them, leaving what Bohrmann calls a “peanut butter-like sludge.”

The state of Washington and the Department of Energy have been looking into reports from February that there were leaks of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste in six of the single-shell tanks. Now Bohrmann says it is believed that only one of those tanks is thought to be leaking 300 gallons a year. “But any leak is a concern for the state,” he says, adding that the groundwater is about 200-300 feet below the tanks. He says it would take about 50 years for contamination to reach the Columbia River.

The long-term plan to deal with Hanford’s tank waste is to immobilize it through a process called vitrification, in which the waste will become radioactive glass and poured into stainless steel containers. Construction on the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant began in 2002 and stopped in 2005 when it was determined that seismic requirements for the design had been underestimated by about 40 percent. It was held up again in 2012 after engineer Walt Tamosaitis raised concerns about critical portions of the $13 billion plant. Tamosaitis was working for URS Corporation, which is a subcontractor to Bechtel National, the company building the treatment plant. The whistleblower was fired in October.

Potential for disaster

“It’s always tough to say with certainly that a facility is 100 percent prepared for an unknown disaster,” says Geoff Tyree of the Department of Energy. He says the DOE has looked at the possibility of the worst-case scenario where the Grand Coulee Dam partially fails on the Columbia River. He says that flooding could result in the release of radioactive material from portions of Hanford into the water, but he says that same water would dilute the radiation to a very low level off site, and Hanford would have about 40 hours of warning to prepare.

Pollet says CGS is the only nuclear reactor in the country built in the vicinity of a nuclear waste site. He calls having a reactor located at Hanford “an insane and stupid thing to do.”

Pollet and Matela question if the Northwest is prepared for what would happen if the Hanford area were to be hit by the large quake geologists say will happen, and if the Grand Coulee Dam were to be breached, creating not a tsunami but a flood. There would be the danger of not only a nuclear disaster at the plant, but radioactive releases from Hanford in an earthquake could make it impossible to adequately respond to problems at CGS.

Pollet says when the NRC re-licensed the Columbia Generating Station last year, after the Fukushima disaster, it should have taken into account the nuke plant’s proximity to Hanford, the area’s high-level nuclear waste and that the Hanford area near where CGS sits could be “awash in a radioactive soup” if the reactor goes down. “They are just going to pray there’s no earthquake,” he says.

Hanford has looked into shipping some of its waste to New Mexico. According to Pollet, the agencies that run Hanford have not had a public meeting in the two years since it was first discovered the nuclear waste tanks were leaking, and he is calling for meetings on the issue not only near Hanford, but in Eastern Oregon and Eugene-Springfield.