It’s only plutonium. It’s only near the Columbia River.


Hanford, in Washington state, has been processing plutonium for decades. The radioactive waste is pumped into gigantic, double-walled tanks with a capacity of a million gallons each, which, we are told, prevents the deadly stuff from leaking into the Columbia River drainage basin. It’ll just get caught by the outer wall of the tank! No worries!

That is, until the inner tank starts leaking heavily, and they procrastinate for years over doing anything about it.

“This is catastrophic. This is probably the biggest event to ever happen in tank farm history. The double shell tanks were supposed to be the saviors of all saviors (to hold waste safely from people and the environment),” said former Hanford worker Mike Geffre.

Geffre is the worker who first discovered that the tank, known as AY-102, was failing in 2011. In a 2013 series, “Hanford’s Dirty Secrets,” the KING 5 Investigators exposed that the government contractor in charge of the tanks, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), ignored Geffre’s findings for nearly a year. The company finally admitted the problem in 2012.

What with the mega-earthquake waiting to destroy the region, and the volcanoes primed to bury Seattle in ash and lava, and the giant pools of deadly plutonium on the Eastern side of the state, it’s a wonder that I managed to survive growing up there.

Washington state is on my short list of places to someday retire to (if I should live that long), but maybe I ought to consider changing it up to places that are safer. Like Australia. They’re always bragging about their lethal wildlife, but back home, we are threatened with the grand forces of geology and nuclear physics.


  1. says

    It is long past time for the US to begin living up to the terms of the non-proliferation treaty it helped ram down the world’s throat — namely to reduce its nuclear weapons stockpile to near zero. Instead, we’ve got a trillion dollar “upgrade” coming (i.e.: nobody’s going to vote for it, it’s just going to, you know, happen) and inevitably the US will cheat on or withdraw from the test ban treaty because you can’t make cool new toys like that and not try one or two.

  2. says

    Washington state is on my short list of places to someday retire to

    Don’t forget the cascadia subduction zone, which is ready to rip at more or less any time. That’ll be a really bad day. It has a decent chance of happening within our lifetimes (and marking the end of our lifetimes, if we live in Seattle or Portland)

  3. madtom1999 says

    There’s a humorous flow chart with loads of clever things all interlinked with a small seemingly insignificant box with ‘some magic happens here’. One of my majors at university was Nuclear Engineering. There were two or three of those magic boxes there too – waste management was one of the least worrying ones.

  4. Friendly says

    We would probably have figured out some novel way to have a hideous accident with them, but it doesn’t stop me from wishing sometimes that the Carter Administration hadn’t decided that the U.S. shouldn’t build breeder reactors that could have burned all of our high-level waste down to really low-level waste.

  5. komarov says

    Double-walled tanks. Nothing could possibly go wrong then. There is a perfect Futurama reference here, I only refrain from posting it because it might be a bit dated now. If you’ve seen it you’ll know exactly what I mean.

    Anyroad, is there some sort of regulation in the US that states waste tanks, basins, ponds etc. must have easy access to rivers? Over the last fer years there has been a string of incidents where run-off from mines, coal powerstations or chemicals ended up in various rivers. There were probably more of these beyond my recall or simply not reported, possibly due to this being a daily occurrence in the US, who knows?
    If this happens again with radioactive waste I will be forced to conclude there is an inofficial competition in the US, some sort of one-upmanship in natural disasters. Which, by the way, would also explain such brilliant notions as Keystone XL. Let’s put a big pipe for toxic stuff across the continent and then place bets on when and where it leaks.

    Re: Marcus Ranum: #1

    Wasn’t one of the key lessons from Dr. Strangelove that, in order for a deterrent to work, you have to tell people about it? The United States have a moral obligation to test their toys when they roll off the assembly line. [/sarcasm] (just in case…)

  6. says

    The United States have a moral obligation to test their toys when they roll off the assembly line

    I know you’re being sarcastic. But it sure is a crazy world where the US is foaming at the mouth when North Korea makes a single bomb (if they used it on anything, it’d result in the utter obliteration of North Korea) and Iran isn’t even trying to make bombs, but merely thought about it once, and the US is perfecting asymmetric implosion lenses and variable yield bombs and getting ready to make something like 3,000 of the fucking things.

    PS – the Dr Strangelove thing: Kubrick accidentally(?) predicted the truth. The USSR had such a system; it is called PERIMETR and it’s still in operation.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    You would think that all these physicists would have learned at some point in their education that pumps and pipes and tanks often fail buy gravity never does.

  8. says

    Hanford is one of the locations for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory! I’m pretty sure they wanted a location where hardly anyone wants to live.

  9. unclefrogy says

    I am coming to the understanding that we have a distinct problem with time. We do not seem to be able to take it seriously in any consistent way at all.
    We (someone) makes a decision to store some bad stuff in a big steel tank and there for it is solved “for ever?”. Nothing anywhere stays the same! A steel tank has a very predictable useful life span, It needs to be replaced periodically 10 yrs. 15 yrs. 20 yrs at some regular interval if the contents needs to be stored in perpetuity. All things we make have a predictable life span, buy an old house and keep up with maintenance.
    Us monkeys seem to make something and then think it is done the idiots in charge of making the decisions concerning Flints water supply are another example that comes to mind.

    Shelly had a comment on the that delusion
    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    uncle frogy

  10. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Important notice: The waste leak problem at Hanford has nothing to do with nuclear power. The problems at Hanford are from nuclear weapons manufacture, which produced a radically different kind of waste.

    Waste from light water reactors is very different.

  11. Holms says

    No one is taking shots at nuclear power here, EL; this is about waste mismanagement. Go back to sleep.

  12. Randomfactor says

    Mental note: next time, spring for the TRIPLE-walled tanks. (Hey, remember when Saturday Night Live had a fake commercial for a THREE-bladed razor because “You’ll buy anything!”?

  13. spamamander, internet amphibian says

    I’ve lived here too long. I can’t even vaguely panic. It’s basically, “well, shit, they better get to that before it leaks into the ground”. Considering there’s an entire train buried out there…

    The bad thing is that people do conflate these waste products with nuclear energy, which is one reason most of the plants are in mothballs. (And yes I know people HERE don’t, but the general public often does.)

    I will say I’ve developed a nice healthy glow as a result of both of my parents working out on the Project…

  14. says

    I wonder how well guarded it is. ‘Cuz, you know… terrorists.
    I wish Sam Harris would perfect his techique for telling terrorists from capitalists. We’re in desperate need.

  15. bachfiend says

    Did you have to write a thread pointing out what a dangerous place Seattle is? I’m an Australian (btw, the Australian fauna isn’t that dangerous – our largest land based carnivore is the dingo, which is hardly a risk, being smaller and more timid than wolves, mountain lions and bears – both black and grizzly) who is visiting Seattle next month.
    I’d thought that the most hazardous thing I am going to be doing is sitting through a performance of Wagner’s ‘the Flying Dutchman’.

  16. jrkrideau says

    @19 Marcus R.

    To cover for Harris. The capitalist is the dangerous one. Terrorists are like mosquitoes: Annoying but not really worth worrying about.

  17. ck, the Irate Lump says

    moarscienceplz wrote:

    You would think that all these physicists would have learned at some point in their education that pumps and pipes and tanks often fail buy gravity never does.

    What makes you think the physicists didn’t already strongly warn of this? I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t several reports outlining exactly the expected lifespan of these tanks, and that it was ignored by those in charge of the money because “It hasn’t failed yet, so I’m sure it’ll last another year or five.”

  18. sparks says

    Fascinating how the ‘whistle blower’ makes it sound as though the tanks are full of nothing but plutonium. I’m sure there are some undesirable isotopes of plutonium plus a lot of other nasty shit we wouldn’t want in the river, the implication here is a dishonest one.

  19. Rob says

    @20, no one cares about the dingos. It’s when all those freaking poisonous spiders start organising, forming alliances with the snakes and herding you all into the mouths of the crocodiles and lethal sea life that things will get real!

  20. Ichthyic says

    I have been banished!

    consider it a pre-emptive nuclear strike.

    only half joking.


  21. Ichthyic says

    – our largest land based carnivore is the dingo

    nice deflection.

    -deadly jellyfish
    -deadly molluscs
    -deadly snakes
    -deadly spiders
    -deadly BIRDS (Cassowary)
    -even venomous mammals, ffs

    oh, and speaking of predators… guess you forgot to mention the salt water crocs (technically also a land predator… and wee bit larger than a bloody dingo) and the white and bull sharks?

    nice try though.


  22. ck, the Irate Lump says

    I do love the scare quotes around “whistle blower” and the idea that plutonium isotopes getting into a water supply is merely undesirable. Plutonium happens to be one of the more dangerous radioisotopes to ingest. You really don’t want stuff that emits alpha rays inside your body.

  23. Ichthyic says

    you want a nice, friendly place with zero predators and things that will kill you?

    New Zealand.

    instead of cassowarys, we have kiwis.

    but you better hurry… the place is being sold off to the highest bidders as I speak.

  24. spamamander, internet amphibian says

    @20 You’re safe! Hanford is a good 200+ miles from Seattle, over the Cascade mountains, in the middle of the desert. The scariest thing in Seattle itself is the hipsters.

  25. says

    No point moving to Australia. The Rethuglican clones over here are using fracking to mine Uranium and disposing of the waste water in one of the world’s largest underground aquifers. Not only that the global warming denying dingbats in the government believe that Australia is the ideal repository for the worlds nuclear waste. So no point leaving Washington state for Australasia, the plutonium will only follow you here,

  26. shelly says


    …our largest land based carnivore is the dingo…

    Our largest land-based predator is the amethystine or scrub python. And they sometimes live in roofs.

  27. jefrir says

    Australia has birds that deliberately start forest fires. You’re not going to convince me it’s a safe place to live

  28. cjmitchell says

    The thing that’s not being pointed out here us that a massive waste processing plant is under construction that will deal with the waste in these tanks. Due to a combination of never-before-done technical challenges, beaurocratic paranoia and overreach from the likes of DOE, DNFSB, and the Washington State Department of Ecology, Congrssional buffoonery/tighfistedness, and private contractors’ differing interests, that project is woefully behind schedule and overbudget. It’s very frustrating to engineers like me who have lived and worked around Hanford for over 20 years.

    It’s easy to stand far away from the mess and denigrate it. But what the public bybamd large doesn’t see are the thousands of dedicated professionals who work here. Many of us, unfortunately, disagree about the “best” approach, the “feasible” approach, the “fast” approach, and the “cheap” approach. None of them line up, and trying to choose the least of 500 evils more than anything means wasted time, during which more of these tanks will start to leak.

  29. says

    I have worked at Hanford for many years. The double-shell tanks (DSTs) were designed to last 20-40 years. They figured we’d have the ‘solution’ (pardon the pun) for nuclear waste by then. Since that time there have been a number of aborted attempts. I can’t say for sure if any should have continued to deployment, but the current vitrification plan has been carried out in a risky way. I kinda liked the ‘grout’ program, but they found that some of the chemicals in the waste suppressed the solidification reaction. It might never have left the liquid or slurry state. Not good! We also had a Basalt Waste Isolation project that went no where. But I really like salt mines for waste storage. They have the kind of ‘historic isolation from flowing water’ that suggests we’d have little to worry about, were our wastes left in a slat formation.

    We are balancing risks. We don’t want the waste to remain in the existing double-shell tanks for, say, ‘a decade longer’, so we fast-track design this one-of a kind melter system. I am told this is the most expensive construction project under way in America. I am rather fearful that the design may not be robust enough. We could be wasting a lot of money on construction. But hey, it isn’t war spending!

    Do note that this event is being taken as a ‘big deal’, but the wastes are still contained, here. It is the leaky Single-Shell Tanks that pose the most clear threat to the environment.

    One of my beefs is that they may not have done an adequate job of cathodic protection of the tank farms, over time. Possibly much longer life could have been gotten out of the tanks. (This is my speculation, given a little info on the subject).

  30. says

    Given this week’s scary headlines about ‘leaking waste’ (leaking into a space designed for it), the Tri-Cities community is apparently quite unconcerned. Only a knucklehead would choose this particular situation (leaking tanks) as a reason to leave the area. I am a Richland resident, and happy to stay.

  31. cjmitchell says

    Yes, I received quite a number of surprised reactions when people saw the article that I had died.

    (I am short young white woman who shares his name and city of residence. I am not dead.)

  32. spamamander, internet amphibian says

    What cjmitchell and ivarhusa said. I’m over in Dayton now, but grew up in Kennewick. My parents worked at Hanford. My grandparents worked at Hanford. (Sadly, my bio grandfather was one of the ones affected by working there early on, before science caught up with what radiation truly did to the body.) I’m more “Seattle” in my politics, but I do get frustrated by the overreactions from that side of the mountains.

    I do have to say cjmitchell, you are amazingly eloquent for a dead woman. ;)

  33. says

    @39 CJ Mitchell. I am glad that you ‘are who you are’, and not dead! I, too, was a sports official and interacted with that “CJ” fairly regularly. There are far worse people to be ‘named like/after’. He was quite a man.