The Environmental Cost of the Cold War

Originally published here.

Late July, 1991:

It was one of those hellishly hot days here in Albuquerque, where you either stayed inside with the air conditioner running, or found a swimming pool someplace, or just sat in front of a fan and tried to stay cool. I was working as a student intern out on Kirtland Air Force Base, in a chemistry lab, where I did radiochemistry work with americium-241 and plutonium-238. That was one of the days when my mom picked me up.

We were driving along a long, winding road leading out of the base. Suddenly the stream of cars slowed down, and stopped. Straight ahead, we saw several military vehicles blocking the road. Standing in the vehicles were “military guys with very big guns” (as my my mom described it later).

We’d seen the signs all summer: WARNING: CONVOYS. That day, we found out what the signs meant. Far head, we spotted several huge transport vehicles with missiles on them. The trucks were flanked by security vehicles, with more heavily armed soldiers making it very obvious that this was serious shit. I suddenly remembered what one of my friends at the labs had told me: “You’ll see convoys of missiles. Those are nuclear weapons. They’re moving them so they can be dismantled. Don’t have to worry about the Russians anymore, you know.”

It was utterly surreal. That was when I realized what was behind the huge “doors” in the Manzano Mountains. It had always been something lurking at the back of all of our minds during the Reagan years: nukes. Soviet nukes pointed our way, ready to launch. Reagan with his finger on the button. As a pre-teen in the early 1980s, I’d tell my mom about my nuclear attack nightmares; she’d tell me about “duck and cover” when she lived at White Sands Missile Range in the late 1950s.

Strange, then, that my undergraduate studies in chemistry lead me to work with transuranics… stranger, still, that I eventually wound up working at the Hanford Nuclear Site, on yet another student internship. My project involved analysis of the waste that had resulted from nuclear bomb production during the Cold War.

A little history:

The Hanford Site is in southeastern Washington State (see the map below). It played a critical role in the Manhattan Project, for that was where plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki was produced.

Map of the Hanford Site

Map of the Hanford Site. Click for a larger version.

As we all know, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a catastrophic and deadly announcement to the world of the birth of a new weapon – a “Sword of Armageddon” that heralded one of the most frightening periods in history: the Cold War.

Hanford became a very busy place. A “war” was on. The US had a nuclear arms race to run… and run we did. At the peak of nuclear weapons production, approximately 70 bombs were coming off the assembly line a day. In 1967, we had a staggering 70,000 nuclear warheads poised for use. The number declined over the years; by the time the Cold War had ended, our stockpile had been reduced to about 21,500 warheads.

Today, the US and Russia together still have about 4,000 nuclear bombs on hair-trigger alert. At least 1,900 of the US bombs are stored here in New Mexico, at Kirtland AFB (see “Where The Bombs Are“, which includes a cool map and a Google Earth file).

But, in a way, the Cold War never ended, for we are left with its toxic legacy: millions and millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste, in Hanford’s leaky tanks.

Single-shell tank construction at Hanford, 1944. Image credit: DOE. (Click to enlarge.)

Hanford is considered to be one of the most severely contaminated sites in the United States. When plutonium was being produced at such a frantic pace back in the 1950s and 1960s, the waste from its isolation from reactor fission products was stored in hastily constructed single-wall tanks. 400 million liters of liquid waste were deliberately discharged into open trenches and pits; a total of 4 million liters of liquid waste has leaked into the ground from the tanks. The radioactive elements in the waste include both alpha- beta- and gamma-emitting elements, including (radioactive) isotopes of plutonium, americium, uranium, strontium, and cesium. There are about 87 million liters of salt cake/sludge left in the tanks (more details here).

Hanford tank waste leakage patterns. Image credit: DOE. (Click to enlarge.)

The list goes on and on. I think you get the point: we aren’t just stuck with thousands of nuclear bombs, we’re stuck with a horrifying witches brew of waste, a nightmarish cleanup project that is perpetually over-budget and far behind schedule.

The most recent news comes from a Goverment Accountability Office (GAO) report (pdf) on the single-shell tanks. Here’s an excerpt from the executive summary:

DOE lacks comprehensive information about the condition, contents, and long-term viability of Hanford’s waste tanks. Although recent work indicates that the newer, double-shell tanks are generally sound structurally, the condition of the older, single-shell tanks is less certain. All the tanks contain a complex mix of radioactive elements and chemicals, making the proportions of constituents in any tank uncertain and emptying the tanks technically challenging. DOE officials acknowledged the lack of information about the condition of the single-shell tanks and are in early stages of a study to assess these tanks’ structural integrity. The uncertainties over tank condition, especially as the time frames for emptying tanks are extended and the tanks’ age, raise serious questions about the tanks’ long-term viability.

DOE’s tank management strategy involves continuing to use Hanford’s aging tanks to store waste until they can be emptied, the waste treated, and the tanks closed. As work proceeds, however, DOE’s time frames for completion are lengthening by decades, and the agency appears to be operating under more than one schedule. For example, DOE’s internal milestone for emptying single-shell tanks is 19 years later than the date agreed to with its regulators.


DOE lacks comprehensive risk information needed to weigh the benefits of pursuing its tank waste removal and closure strategy against growing costs. In particular, DOE has not assessed the risks posed by continuing to store waste in the aging tanks until the waste is removed and cannot demonstrate that benefits are commensurate with the costs of its tank management strategy. DOE is nevertheless moving forward with negotiating new tank waste milestones with its regulators.

In other words, the DOE set a goal in 1989… and got stuck there. Meanwhile, there is a potential (pdf) for fires and explosions in the single-shell tanks; they continue to leak, yet the DOE’s remediation program chases its government red tape-bound tail.

It’s important to note that the scientists out in the lonely, and dangerous (pdf) laboratories at Hanford have done their best to clean things up and analyze the waste. I know from personal experience that they are some of the best, but most frustrated, chemists I’ve ever worked with. Indeed, the GAO report concludes:

We recognize that, with technical complexities, intensifying fiscal pressures, and multiple stakeholders with competing visions of success, DOE faces unique challenges in carrying out its responsibility to protect people and the environment during its tank remediation efforts. Nevertheless, we believe that fulfilling this responsibility requires a strategy grounded in fundamental information about the tanks and the risks they pose as they are emptied and closed. DOE’s knowledge about tank integrity, tank viability over time, and tank risk is still incomplete. Consequently, DOE cannot appropriately weigh the relative risks of its strategy to workers, the public, and the environment against the climbing costs or weigh the risks and costs of its present strategy against other possible options for managing the tanks and their waste.

I’d like to have confidence that the GAO’s recommendations will be followed, and things will move forward with single-shell tank waste remediation at Hanford. However, based upon 19 years of delays and problems, the outlook is uncertain, at best.

In the meantime, you can get a taste of this particularly dark, relatively unknown piece of Cold War history:

Step right up! Tours of the Hanford Site are available! It ain’t Disneyland, but it’s something everyone should see. Seriously, it is history that every American needs to know, especially in light of the recent proposals to start up plutonium pit production (pdf).

More bombs? Maybe. Another arms race? Depends on who becomes president.

More waste? Definitely.

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