Letter of the Week: A dirty legacy

Published: Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 11:43 p.m.

Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, but the U.S. does — and we have the waste to prove it.

Nuclear wastes are scattered across the country at weapon facilities that operated for years without environmental oversight. This legacy is an environmental mess requiring billions of dollars and years of cleanup.

Our economy, however, has imploded and some of the economic fallout will undermine cleanup efforts at weapon facilities, such as the Hanford Reservation.

The Hanford site is our most contaminated weapons facility. It is noted on their Web site the facility “is engaged in the world’s largest environmental cleanup project … Physical challenges at the Hanford site include more than 50 million gallons of high-level liquid waste in 177 underground storage tanks, 2,300 tons (2,100 metric tons) of spent nuclear fuel, 12 tons (11 metric tons) of plutonium in various forms, about 25 million cubic feet (750,000 cubic meters) of buried or stored solid waste, and about 270 billion gallons (a trillion liters) of groundwater contaminated above drinking water standards, spread out over about 80 square miles (208 square kilometers), more than 1,700 waste sites, and about 500 contaminated facilities.”

The “cleanup” of the Hanford site has been ongoing for approximately twenty years. Recently revised estimates place “cleanup date” (meaning completed waste vitrification) at 2047. There are also unresolved questions/issues regarding nuclear waste disposal. I have wondered what gases/by-products are produced as wastes breakdown.

In light of a global push to build new nuclear power plants and weapon facilities — can emerging countries really build one without the other? — there needs to be greater emphasis on developing technologies to better facilitate management of increasing waste inventories — in the U.S. and in other countries, including those bordering the fragile Arctic. Both waste and thermal pollution issues must be taken into account.

U.S. weapon facilities are located along rivers of major ecological and economic importance. Research is a valuable component of the cleanup efforts at weapon facilities. Cleanup efforts need adequate funding if our rivers are to be protected from further contamination.

Money slated for military weapons — God forbid a major war between countries dotted with nuclear facilities — would be better spent assisting nuclear facilities in meeting their “legal deadlines for cleanup.”

Diane Forkel,


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