NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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


Leave a comment

Swimming Upstream: Examining the Impacts of Nuclear-age Pollution on Columbia River Salmon

A view of the free-flowing section of Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach, along with the famous white bluffs that line it.

A view of the free-flowing section of Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach, along with the famous white bluffs that line it. (NOAA)

Flowing freely through southeastern Washington is an approximately 50 mile stretch of the Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach. This unique section of river is birthplace and home to many animals at different stages of life, including Chinook salmon, the largest of the river’s Pacific salmon. Yet this same segment of river at one time also served as the birthplace of the nuclear age: at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Today, NOAA, other federal and state agencies, and Indian tribes are still trying to determine the full impact of this nuclear legacy on fish, wildlife, and their habitats.

Beginning in 1943, the Hanford Reach, with its steady supply of water and relative isolation, attracted the attention of the U.S. government during World War II. Searching for a location to erect nuclear reactors for the top-secret Manhattan Project, the U.S. was racing to build an atomic bomb and this work took shape at Hanford.

Two of Hanford's nuclear reactors sit, decommissioned, along the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Two of Hanford’s nine nuclear reactors sit, decommissioned, along the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (NOAA)

The first nuclear reactor built at Hanford—and the first full-scale nuclear production plant in the world—was the B Reactor, which began operating in 1944. This and the other eight reactors eventually constructed at Hanford were located right on the Columbia River, an essential source of water to carry away the extreme heat generated by nuclear fission reactions. In these plants, workers turned uranium (euphemistically referred to as “metal”) into weapons-grade plutonium (known as “product”). The plutonium eventually ended up in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, as well as in nuclear arms stockpiled during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Hanford’s last reactors shut down in 1987.

The River Runs Through It

While the nuclear reactors were operating, however, water was pumped from the Columbia River and aerated at a rate of 70,000 gallons a minute. This was meant to improve its quality as it flowed through a maze of processing equipment—pipes, tubes, and valves—and into the core, the heart of the nuclear reactor. There, in the case of B Reactor, about 27,000 gallons of water gushed through 2,004 process tubes every minute. Each tube held 32 rods of uranium fuel.

The "valve pit" in Hanford's B Reactor, where the thousands of gallons of water that cooled the nuclear reactor's core passed through.

The “valve pit” in Hanford’s B Reactor, where the thousands of gallons of water that cooled the nuclear reactor’s core passed through. (NOAA)

Inside the reactor’s core, where the nuclear reactions were occurring, the water temperature would spike from 56 degrees Fahrenheit to 190 degrees in a single minute. Later in the reactor’s lifespan, the operators would be able to leave the water inside the nuclear reactor core long enough to heat it to 200 degrees before releasing the water into lined but leaky outdoor holding ponds. Once in the holding ponds, the reactor water would sit until its temperature cooled and any short-lived radioactive elements had broken down. Finally, the water would return to the Columbia River and continue its path to the Pacific Ocean.

Water played such an essential role in the nuclear reactor that engineers had four levels of backup systems to keep water constantly pumping through the core. In addition to being aerated, the water was also filtered and chemically treated. To prevent the core’s plumbing equipment from corroding, chromium was added to the water. Hanford’s D Reactor, in particular, handled large quantities of solid hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical known to cause cancer.

The Salmon Runs Through It

A NOAA scientist takes stock of a male Chinook salmon during their fall run along the Hanford Reach in 2013.

A NOAA scientist takes stock of a male Chinook salmon during their fall run along the Hanford Reach in 2013. (NOAA)

Fast-forward to 2013. NOAA and its partners are participating in a natural resource damage assessment, a process determining whether negative environmental impacts resulted from the Department of Energy’s activities at Hanford. As part of that, NOAA is helping look at the places where water leaked or was discharged back into the Columbia River after passing through the reactors.

One goal is to establish at what levels of contamination injury occurs for species of concern at Hanford. Salmon and freshwater mussels living in the Columbia River represent the types of species they are studying. Yet these species may face impacts from more than 30 different contaminants at Hanford, some of which are toxic metals such as chromium while others are radioactive isotopes such as strontium-90.

Many of the Columbia River’s Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout spawn in or migrate through the Hanford Reach. Currently, NOAA and the other trustees are pursuing studies examining the extent of their spawning in this part of the river and determining the intensity of underground chromium contamination welling up through the riverbed. This information is particularly important because salmon build rocky nests and lay their eggs in the gravel on the bottom of the river.

You can learn more about the history of the Hanford Reach and the chromium and other contamination that threatens the river (around minute 8:50-9:03)  in this video from the Department of Energy:

The trustees have many other studies planned, all trying to uncover more information about the natural resources and what they have been experiencing in the context of Hanford’s history. Yet, for the natural resource damage assessment, even if the trustees find salmon experiencing negative impacts, the evidence found needs to be tied directly to exposure to Hanford’s pollution (rather than, for example, the influence of dams or pollution from nearby farms). It is a complicated process of information gathering and sleuthing, but eventually it will culminate in a determination of the restoration required for this critical stretch of habitat on the Columbia River.

For more information, see:


Leave a comment

What Do Hanford’s Latest Nuclear Waste Leaks Mean for Environmental Restoration?

This is a post by Vicki Loe and Charlene Andrade.

Some of the older nuclear waste storage tanks at Hanford in southeast Washington.

Some of the older nuclear waste storage tanks at Hanford in southeast Washington. (U.S. Department of Energy)

This past February, the U.S. Department of Energy confirmed that six additional nuclear waste storage tanks are leaking at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington. This revelation has drawn attention once again to the ongoing challenges of assessing, cleaning up, and restoring the environment around a massive nuclear waste site.

To understand how these six aging nuclear waste tanks might affect salmon, the sagebrush-filled desert ecosystem, and nearby Columbia River, it helps to understand more about Hanford’s history. In 1943, the Hanford Site was developed by the U.S. Government for the production of plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project that developed atomic bombs during World War II. The site continued to produce plutonium as well as nuclear energy until the last reactor stopped operating in 1987. The weapons production and nuclear energy operations at Hanford left dangerous and environmentally harmful solid and liquid waste, creating one of the largest and most complex cleanup projects in the U.S. That effort has been in progress since 1989.

Hanford’s 177 total storage tanks, some of which date from the 1940s, hold more than 50 million gallons of radioactive waste. These six leaking tanks are among 149 older “single-shell” tanks, which only have one liner. (Tanks constructed more recently feature “double-shells.”) However, these older tanks were designed for a lifespan of only about 20 years. According to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, “This certainly raises serious questions about the integrity of all 149 single-shell tanks with radioactive liquid and sludge at Hanford.”

One of the older waste storage tanks under construction at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

One of the older waste storage tanks under construction at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (U.S. Department of Energy)

While tanks at the site have leaked in the past, news of these recently discovered leaks again raises concerns about the condition of the tanks and underscores the ongoing complexities of this assessment and cleanup.

The six leaking tanks pose no immediate threat to natural resources because they are located 200–300 feet above the groundwater table. The State of Washington indicates that there is no immediate or near-term health risk as the leaking tanks are located more than five miles from the Columbia River. In addition, measures are being taken to prevent contamination currently in the soil from entering the river.

While this latest discovery affects the ongoing cleanup, it does not change the focus of the Hanford Natural Resource Damage Assessment because the Hanford Natural Resource Trustee Council is already evaluating harm from contamination flowing into the Columbia River, which borders the site and is home to Chinook salmon and sturgeon. The council includes representatives from NOAA, three tribal organizations, the States of Washington and Oregon, and two other federal agencies. It is tasked with characterizing the cumulative impacts from decades of releases and contamination to the fish, wildlife, and the habitats they rely upon, and determining the cumulative restoration needed to replace, restore, and offset the total decades of damage.

Discovery of the additional leaking tanks illustrates the challenge of that task: to be able to measure the harm over time, even as new sources of contamination are discovered and await cleanup. Each source  can add to the cumulative impact and ultimately to the amount of restoration that will eventually be needed to offset damages.

For more information about the work of the Hanford Natural Resource Trustee Council, view the Hanford Natural Resource Damage Assessment Injury Assessment Plan, which describes how the council will characterize and quantify the past, ongoing, and future environmental impacts.


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

Restoration Amid Nuclear Waste and the Largest Environmental Cleanup in the U.S.

The front face of Hanford's B Reactor, where uranium fuel slugs were loaded into the reactor when it was operating.

The front face of Hanford’s B Reactor, where uranium fuel slugs were loaded into the reactor when it was operating. The reactor began operating in September 1944; it was shut down from 1946-1948, and then went back into service until 1968. (Dept. of Energy)

Recently I had the opportunity to tour the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation with a NOAA staffer working on the Hanford Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). The goal of the Hanford damage assessment is to restore the natural resources affected by contamination from decades of nuclear defense activities at the Hanford Nuclear Site.

Spent fuel rods stored underwater at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Spent fuel rods are stored underwater at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (Dept. of Energy)

Between 1944 and 1987, Hanford, located in eastern Washington state, produced plutonium for atomic weapons, starting with the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. During the Cold War years, the facilities grew to include nine nuclear reactors and associated processing plants.

While producing plutonium for the U.S. defense program throughout the Cold War, billions of gallons and millions of tons of nuclear waste were generated, contaminating the ground around waste sites, the reactor and processing facility buildings, and groundwater. The site accounts for two-thirds of all the high-level radioactive waste in the entire country (by volume). There are 149 large eroding tanks filled with old nuclear waste that is in the process of being transferred into new tanks and eventually will be mixed with glass, a process called vitrification, for stability and permanent storage.

Since 1989, Hanford has been in cleanup mode and is the largest environmental cleanup in the U.S., employing about 11,000 people. Technicians work to mitigate contaminated groundwater before it reaches the Columbia River, which borders the site for 51 miles. They work on demolishing facilities, encasing (“cocooning”) old reactors, and burying tons of waste material into huge pits that are lined to prevent contaminants from leaching into the soil. A new waste treatment plant is underway that will handle the vitrification process for the nuclear waste currently stored in tanks. The process of cleaning up is likely to continue for decades.

Burned-out shell of Hanford High School.

Hanford High School as it looks today. It is the only building left from the original town of Hanford, Wash. (Dept. of Energy)

While touring Hanford, I was struck by the enormity of the site as well as the magnitude of the problem and the range of cleanup activities in progress. The 586-square-mile area is a desert steppe ecosystem mostly covered in grasses and sagebrush, with very few trees. For the most part nothing breaks the horizon but the now sealed-up, tall, windowless, nuclear reactors.

There are rolling hills and bluffs along the Columbia River, as well as the sites of two former small towns: Hanford, which gave the larger site its name, and White Bluffs. Both towns were evacuated permanently to make way for the top-secret nuclear project in 1943.

Two Hanford High School baseball players in 1925.

Two members of the Hanford High School baseball team in 1925. (Dept. of Energy)

All that’s left of them is the burned-out cement shell of Hanford High School, outlines of where sidewalks and streets once were, and a bank that had been in downtown White Bluffs. Some former residents return in the summer for a picnic on the site of the vanished communities.

For thousands of years before these two small towns existed, the area was inhabited by Native American people who gathered mussels, spear-fished salmon, and hunted the bison that previously roamed there.  The site is still important as a cultural meeting place and fall fishing ground for descendants of the Native people. Also of concern to the Native American people are the more than 600 archeological sites that have been discovered within the Hanford Nuclear site.

Three Tribes, as well as representatives from the states of Washington and Oregon, the U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and NOAA are all involved in the environmental damage assessment. This collective group of trustees operates by consensus to replace lost or injured resources. They face diverse interests as they continue to collaborate throughout this process. In future blog posts here, we’ll look at a particular challenge of interest to NOAA, which is whether to initiate environmental restoration in the Columbia River before the full cleanup and damage assessment is complete.

For more information on tours of the Hanford Nuclear Site, see the U.S. Department of Energy Hanford Site Tours.


Leave a comment

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 370 other followers