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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Submit Your Comments: Studying Decades of Environmental Injuries at the Hanford Nuclear Site

This is a post by OR&R’s Charlene Andrade, Mary Baker, and Vicki Loe.

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960.

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960. The N Reactor is in the foreground, with the twin KE and KW Reactors in the immediate background. The historic B Reactor, the world’s first plutonium production reactor, is visible in the distance. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Interesting things are happening at Hanford. After decades of nuclear production, years of cleanup, and chronic contamination, the time has come to begin restoring the land and natural resources of Hanford, Wash. That’s why NOAA, along with other agencies and tribes, has started a natural resource damage assessment and is now publishing a document for public review. The Draft Injury Assessment Plan [PDF] describes the first phase of the restoration process, which is to quantify harm to natural resources at the Hanford Nuclear Site.

For those of you unfamiliar with the history of the site, between 1944 and 1987, Hanford, located in eastern Washington state, produced plutonium for atomic weapons, starting with the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. During the Cold War years, the facilities grew to include nine nuclear reactors and associated processing plants. For decades, Hanford produced radioactive materials for Cold War-era military activities, commercial nuclear energy production, and nuclear medicine. These operations led to the release of radionuclides and contaminants into the arid landscape and the Columbia River, which borders the site, injuring the habitats, wildlife, and people’s ability to enjoy the area for recreational and cultural uses.

Cocooned F Reactor surrounded by grassland and hills at Hanford.


F Area is home to F Reactor, the third of Hanford’s nine plutonium production reactors built to produce plutonium for the nation’s defense program during both World War II and the Cold War. The reactor operated from 1945 to 1965 and was placed in interim safe storage in 2003. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Cleanup at the site began in 1989 and likely will continue well into the future. However, we are concerned about the chronic environmental impacts and believe there is a need to begin restoration now to offset the more than 30 years of injury. Our efforts are different than cleanup. Cleanup involves removing contaminated materials such as buildings, waste, and soil from the landscape.

Restoration, on the other hand, involves accounting for and offsetting the harm done to natural resources that continue to feel these impacts while waiting for full cleanup at the site. For example, during past operations at Hanford, leaks and overflows caused contaminants from nuclear reactors to flow directly into the Columbia River, and even though the facilities have long since been closed, the contaminants in the groundwater, such as chromium, have continued to leach into the river to the present day. These contaminants have reached Chinook salmon spawning grounds and the forage and resting areas for sensitive young salmon near the shoreline.

This is why NOAA, other agencies, and local tribes believe it is time to begin restoration planning.

The Draft Injury Assessment Plan, which is available for your review, is the first step in planning restoration. We are required by law to describe and quantify harm to impacted habitats and species before we can begin restoration on land or in the river, and we have created a Draft Injury Assessment Plan to accomplish that.

F Reactor sits across the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Site.

The now-remediated F Reactor, a former plutonium productor reactor, sits across the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Site. NOAA and the other natural resource trustees hope to begin reversing the decades of environmental harm at this site. (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

No one has completed this kind of assessment at Hanford before, and it will be a challenging and complex task. First, we will pull from existing scientific studies, Hanford site documents, and historical information to create a picture of what harm has been done to the natural resources. Then, we will plan additional studies only where the picture is not already clear.

Once we fill in these missing pieces with data, we will be better prepared to determine the scale and type of restoration needed and begin the appropriate projects. Assessing past, present, and future environmental injuries will not be easy, which is why we need your input on our plan.

Let us know what you think of our proposed approach. You can find out more about our efforts and obtain copies of the Draft Injury Assessment Plan [PDF] at www.hanfordnrda.org.

Submit your comments by January 4, 2013 to:

Mr. Larry Goldstein (Larry.Goldstein@ecy.wa.gov)
Hanford Natural Resource Trustee Council Chair
Washington State Department of Ecology
Nuclear Waste Program
P.O. Box 47600
Olympia, WA 47600
360-407-6573

Mary Baker.

One of the authors, Mary Baker.

In addition, a public meeting will be held on Wednesday, December 12, 2012 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Richland Public Library’s Gallery Room, 955 Northgate Drive.

Learn more about the Hanford Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Mary Baker is an environmental toxicologist and the Northwest-Great Lakes Regional Manager in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.


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CSI: Hanford, Complete with Nuclear Superheroes

Like a character out of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, I investigate legal cases—but mine are cases of pollution, oiling, and chemical mayhem, which are a little less grisly than those featured on CSI. When polluters contaminate our nation’s wildlife, rivers, and ocean, my colleagues and I are there on the scene.

As a scientist with NOAA’s Assessment and Restoration Division in Seattle, Wash., I work alongside teams of scientists to piece together the story of what happened, determining the short- and long-term damage from releases of pollution, and then developing plans to restore what was lost. Sometimes I feel my job is part crime scene investigator, part restoration specialist, and part negotiator. And I love it—it’s always a challenge.

Nuclear explosion

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office.

For example, my current case is located at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington. Yes, I said it: nuclear. You may know of Hanford as part of the site of the “Manhattan Project,” where America manufactured the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb, as well as for the one detonated over Nagasaki, Japan during World War II. After decades of plutonium and uranium processing, tons of chemicals and radiation have spilled onto the land and into the nearby Columbia River. Some of this has even traveled about 300 miles downstream to the Pacific Ocean.

Can you imagine what decades of pollution have done to the fish, wildlife, and habitat of the Columbia River? Many people have imagined the worst, and there are lots of urban legends, movies, and comic book heroes related to all things Hanford. That includes far-fetched ideas of glowing fish, three-headed monsters, the superhero “Doctor Manhattan,” as well as alleged experiments on alligators and beagles, and even reports of jars of nuclear-laden jam from Hanford fruit trees being sent to Congressional representatives as “gifts” (the jam story is true).

The Columbia River as it travels along the Hanford Nuclear Site.

The Columbia River as it travels along the Hanford Nuclear Site in eastern Washington. Credit: Department of Energy.

But for all the contamination and controversy surrounding this nuclear site, the land and the river still support fish and wildlife. Fifty-one miles of the Columbia River flow along the site, and each fall, Chinook salmon return to spawn in the waters adjacent to Hanford. Sturgeon, too, can still be found in the deep pools of the river.

Despite all the hype and, at times, high levels of contamination, we seek out “just the facts,” hoping to sort out the real story of what happened at Hanford.

We’ll use the best possible science to accomplish that: studying genetics, looking at fish tissue health, comparing fish growth and reproduction, and even using the latest technology to discover if contamination is leaking into the river near salmon eggs or into the deep pools where sturgeon hang out.

As part of NOAA’s team of investigators, we have just begun trying to piece together exactly what contamination entered the river over the past several decades and then figure out what the fish do each year because of that pollution.

It will be difficult to sort out what has happened over so much time: How do we determine if animals are surviving just fine there, or if they are being replaced with new wildlife that move in each year? Our biggest challenge will be to reach into the past to figure out what was polluted and affected each year, and then pull it all together into a complete story, a scientific case.

Ultimately, we will go before the public—and sometimes a judge—with our cases and present that story, complete with evidence and “Exhibit A.” Our story must be logical, reasonable, and as complete as possible.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In future posts I hope to discuss how we search for clues, I’ll ponder what it means to present and future fish generations and habitat, and we’ll even dare to explore restoration options for Hanford.

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