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Blowing in the wind: Plutonium at former nuclear weapons site (latimes.com)
96 points by knuththetruth 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments

For those in CO, you might not remember the similar Rocky Flats fiasco.

The court cases had such funny stuff as overturning a jury verdict on appeals as "the judges wrote that under the law, the presence of plutonium on properties south of the Jefferson County plant, which closed in 1989 for safety and environmental reasons, at best shows only a risk — not actual damages to their health or properties."


These days, the site hasn't been tested in over a decade, in an area known for top soil erosion. And now more and more houses are being built immediately adjacent, with no warning to the homebuyers that this used to be a nuclear waste superfund site.

On the 'plus side' they at one point tried to get rid of the plutonium waste by combining it into a slurry and injecting it into the ground, which left us with some of the first data on how hydraulic fracturing can cause an increase in earthquakes.

Anyone that wants to read more about this should check out "Full Body Burden" by Kristen Iversen


An interview with the author was in the Atlantic a few years ago:


This happened quite a while ago, but similar things are still going on today. Recently, I was considering a job in Pennsylvania, which unfortunately was several miles from the Marcus Hook Sunoco refinery (which has been in operation since 1902). It was recently fined $750,000 for "illegal modifications to equipment that allowed tons of potentially hazardous gases to be released into the air over two years." ...

"According to DNREC, the flare was modified at some point to receive gases from multiple sources throughout the Marcus Hook side of the facility, although no permit for those changes was ever sought by the company."

Those gases included hydrogen fluoride among other things.


"hydrogen fluoride".

That's insane.

HF is the first entry in Derek Lowe's Things I won't work with[0] blog series. There's a video[1] on YouTube of a spill of some eight tons, which killed five and injured thousands; there are some situations for which the best possible outcome is a quick death. The idea of intentionally dumping HF into the atmosphere is nauseating.

[0] http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2004/03/03/thi... [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EpE3JHHoaI

And now they've buried this information and are building thousands of homes there. Literally thousands of families live on radioactive ground. I know because we almost bought one. https://candelasglows.com

This (rocky flats) is the only case where on federal agency (FBI) raided another (DOE). It's a fascinating and terrifying story. Many of the employees who worked there died terrible drawn out deaths from radiation exposure during their jobs without any support. They just had 50 gallon oil drums of radioactive waste sitting in the open to the elements with visible rust holes in them for decades. They had multiple plutonium fires due to the buildup of plutonium dust in the air handling systems of the glove boxes which were supposed to contain it. They had manual machinists manually operating machine tools, mills and lathes, located within glove boxes to make the parts for the triggers. Also, on the less scary side they developed amazing ultra high speed film cameras to record the trigger explosions.

Which is a good story to tell all those techno-naive who go on about the safety of modern nuclear reactors and such (it's always past designs that are at fault)...

When there's money to be made by cheapening out (on construction, safety, disposal, testing, quality of employees, etc), whether the risk to others (and sometimes even to self), some people will cheapen out.

Add human error to that, and it's better if the whole thing happens to some old-style electricity factory, and not to one whose waste needs safe storage for decades, and an accident can kill hundreds of thousands.

I've got bad news for you about coal ash.

If anything, that would be an argument against using coat factories too -- not an argument in favor of nuclear factories.

That said, the whole comparison that makes it as coal factories produce "more radioactive" waste, is based on comparing with "normal" nuclear factory emissions, under their 'theoretical' operation. Not the total long term potential, when one includes catastrophes, breakdowns, lousy waste containment and disposal, or the mafia just throwing it in the sea in the calculation.

> That said, the whole comparison that makes it as coal factories produce "more radioactive" waste

The important thing to look at isn't what power source produces the "most radioactive" waste, it's the actual death tolls per KWh of different power sources. And coal is about 1000 times worse, both worldwide and in the US, _counting_ Chernobyl and Fukushima.


I mean, the coal ash calculations are "normal" numbers as well.

Yes, but there are not much "abnormal" situations that can happen with those plants...

The normal operations kill more than the abnormal situations. That doesn't make it better.

You mean other than the fairliy regular coal ash spills?

I bought a home in Candelas knowing all about the rocky flats incident.

While the home builders are certainly not forthcoming on details of the incident, the site you linked to is packed with scientific inaccuracies and fear mongering.

I personally know workers who performed the cleanup, and also have reviewed health data which shows zero increase in cancer in the entire area for the 30 years since the last incident.

People like you are why I moved here. The houses are cheaper because of the reduced demand than they otherwise would be.

I'm on a phone, but later I will post a thorough debunking of the candelas glows site. People who don't understand the difference between alpha and beta particles, not plutonium vs uranium vs strontium have no business writing this stuff. It gives actual environmental contamination awareness campaigns a bad name.

Regardless of the specifics, people buying homes and living there should know the details. I don't own or run that site, but people should know the history of that area. It's a simple fact that groundwater and air contamination with radioactive substances occurred there. As you say, it's far more complicated than is or isn't. For me the risk and severity of the consequenced seemed to far outweigh saving some money. The wiki article has some more background : https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_contamination_fr...

I've worked with the CDPHE a few times, and given my experience don't really trust their assessment.

Is this really close to Boulder? What about contamination of water?

The FBI agent that first did the investigation found out about it by hiring a private plane and was able to "see" the radiation in Stanley lake right there with an ir camera. I suspect that is why swimming is still not allowed in that lake. Also there are lots if cases of aweful cancer in the families that lived in the area and had well water, lots.

It's on 93 about two thirds of the way to Golden.

I'm largely ignorant of how this all works but what about somebody just going door to door with a Geiger counter to spread some awareness?

IMO, it's a complicated enough issue that typical citizen action would probably not be helpful. What we should have is other full investigations by qualified neutral third parties at regular intervals rather than the CDPHE's 'mission accomplished, everything's fine' review we had most recently.

I wouldn't want people who don't really know how to account for normal environmental background radiation muddying the waters and providing a counter argument of "well, the only people complaining weren't qualified to make that judgement".

The problem with that approach is that the ground isn't radioactive at all, and the commenter fell for disinformation on a local antinucleaer hippy website. The houses were built upwind and uphill from the site, and the EPA, state, and local governments have all hired independent third parties to test for contamination. There is none. The area is now a wildlife refuge, and there is no trace of health effects in animals in the area. I bought a home there after investigating the data myself for over a year. I have a wife and two kids, and would never put them at risk. The amount of radiation Colorado residents are exposed to from the sun and ground minerals dwarfs anything from Rocky Flats. There is zero data to back up the hippy claims. I work with data for a living, and have actually found cancer clusters in the US around refineries and chemical plants.

Tldr: a Geiger counter will show nothing here.

I can't remember where I read it, but someone tested the top soil just on the side of the road on Indiana and it was radioactive. Just dirt on the side of the road.

The scale of the craziness at Hanford in the 50s-60s is difficult to appreciate, or even to imagine. Many of us have taken a lab course in qualitative inorganic analysis. You know, where you dissolve a sample in nitric acid, precipitate with sulfate, filter, redissolve the precipitate, precipitate with sulfide, filter, and so on. Eventually you understand what metals the sample contained.

OK, so back in the 50s-6s, that's how they isolated plutonium from neutron-exposed uranium. After aging in water for a few weeks, levels of short-lived fission products were low enough that humans could manipulate the stuff, behind several feet of steel, lead and concrete shielding, without immediately lethal radiation doses.

But then, what they did was dissolve this shit in hot nitric acid, in huge steel vessels. With clever mechanical manipulators. Even after aging, however, levels of xenon-133 and iodine-131 were still quite high. And where do you think they went? Up a stack, of course. What else? Abbeit through shielded pipes, to protect workers.

But you know, they could only dissolve when the wind was blowing fast enough. Because otherwise, the cloud of xenon-133 and iodine-131 overhead would inflict dangerous radiation exposures to workers. They released a lot:[0]

> The formally classified report Dissolving of Twenty Day Metal at Hanford states that Hanford officials initially planned to release approximately 4,000 curies of iodine-131 and 7,900 curies of xenon-133 but ended up releasing in actuality 7,780 curies of iodine-131, along with 20,000 curies of xenon-133 into the surrounding area's atmosphere within a seven-hour period. [1] In comparison, the March 1979 Three Mile Island accident released between 15 and 24 curies of radioactive iodine.

But hey, at least they didn't dissolve on days when the wind was blowing west toward Portland or Seattle. Mainly they nuked local subsistence farmers. Iodine-131 has a half-life of just eight days. That's short enough that levels in commercial milk are low enough, given all the delays from feed to cows to stores. But if you lived near Hanford then, and your kids were drinking milk from your own cows or goats, they got dangerous iodine-131 doses to their thyroids.

0) http://www.hanfordproject.com/greenrun.html

low enough that humans could manipulate the stuff, behind several feet of steel, lead and concrete shielding, without immediately lethal radiation doses.

Wait, for real? I have zero training in handling fissile material, but I didn't think any significant level of radiation could make it through that much shielding.

There are rooms in some of these facilities that have been known as infinity rooms because no readily available radiation meter would not saturate in them.

The radiation field of a freshly removed power reactor fuel element is so strong that you couldn’t run past it fast enough to survive the dose.

I fully understand direct exposure can be lethal nearly instantly.

It looks like what I didn't understand is radiation-blocking of a material (lead, concrete, water) is actually a decay function (half of the radiation makes it through X feet) rather than an absolute function (no radiation makes it through X feet).

In other words, given an infinitely radioactive source, you would require an infinitely thick lead barrier to protect you.

Really, I should have guessed given everything else about radioactivity is the same way.

Right, it's just like transparency for visible light.

But many of the fission products in neutron-exposed uranium emit high-energy gammas. And even lead is somewhat transparent.

Also, from what Google tells me, those "infinity rooms" at Hanford are probably contaminated with plutonium-239. That's an alpha emitter, and alphas (helium-4 nuclei) are pretty easy to stop.

As I said, people probably can't imagine :)

OK, consider a tall gantry crane on wheels.[0] Now imagine a plate, several feet thick, with layers of steel, lead and concrete, suspended below the rails. With a cab on the top, and no line of sight through the holes for the cables.

0) https://houstonforkliftsafety.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07...

Before people start criticizing nuclear power. This story is about the Hanford Site. This is where they exclusively made plutonium for bombs, starting from the Manhatten Project. It’s a very complex situation with waste all over the site for a number of reasons, some of them really bad (aka management incompetence, government outsourcing of responsibility, etc), some of them sort of understandable (hey Joe, it’s 1945, we don’t know much about this shit but it can’t possibly hurt anyone if we bury over there in this vast wasteland. Don’t worry we’ll remember where it is... doesn’t).

Tours of the Hanford site are available to US citizens. Highly recommend people also go to the Manahatten Project “B Reactor” out there which is available to everyone.

My primary concern with nuclear power is the human element. For which we have a long and well-demonstrated history of limitations that don't match corresponding requirements.

In other words, we are creating something human history -- as well as contemporary events -- demonstrate we do not have an enduring ability to manage.

As they say, we can't put the genie back in the bottle. But we can perhaps do something to limit scope, particularly where alternatives are developing that are safer and, sliding down the development cost graph, more cost-effective.

P.S. I'll add that, until we can manufacture elements (more fully), I prefer to keep these limited resource available for potential future use, when we have acceptable alternatives -- for me, now, meaning solar, wind, hydro (all forms of solar energy, essentially).

Who knows what need we might have of them, in the future? What if really going to space requires them in significant quantity, but we burned them all up on street lighting and casinos? ;-)

(Wouldn't it be ironic if further sources were in space, but we didn't have enough to get there?)

Well we could manage to make flights safe I think we can make nuclear energy safe. The biggest problem is that just -like security- safety is against profits or if non-profit cases it is bigger cost.

The site of every airplane crash doesn't become an inhabitable danger lasting for multiple lifetimes.

Some try - here in NZ the foam used by emergency crews at airports has been found to be toxic (ages ago) but kept being used, poisoning large areas. The issue came to light for some people as their farm animals started suffering a range of strange ailments and dying.


Neither do nuclear power plant meltdowns. Fukushima is habitable, Chernobyl is habitable. Most of the concerns around nuclear waste are almost entirely limited to military use. Storing spent fuel rods is a generally solved problem. Most nuclear waste when generating energy can be re-used in other contexts as well... military use creates the nasty by-products that can't be reused.

>Chernobyl is habitable

"Even today, radiation levels are so high that the workers responsible for rebuilding the sarcophagus are only allowed to work five hours a day for one month before taking 15 days of rest. Ukrainian officials estimated the area would not be safe for human life again for another 20,000 years" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster citing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster#cite_note-T...

Even Fukushima, which released most of its radiation out to sea, still has 370 square kilometers of exclusion zone.. 90,000 acres of still-uninhabitable land..


Could you explain what you mean by habitable? Is that in that you can walk around with relative safety in certain places, or that you can safely live their again?

I'd guess the latter. The way half-life works, the stuff that's dangerous to you as you walk around quickly decays and stops being dangerous.

The problem is with long half-life (and thus low-radioactivity) elements that sit on the trees, get mixed with soil, and thus eventually end up in ground water and local food chain. You might be able to walk around a disaster site safely in relatively short time after the event, but I wouldn't try growing anything there.

What about the CO2 production of airplanes? And about the aviation fuel production sites? Fracking to get it out from the ground? Have you ever seen what the oil industry done in Africa? Are ignorant or on purpose leaving out crucial details in the comparison?

>Before people start criticizing nuclear power. This story is about the Hanford Site.

Anything that went wrong with the Hanford Site can go wrong with any nuclear power factory.

It's the profit and human error factors...

Not sure how many techno-naive pro nuclear factory people know that in the real world (as opposed to the fantasy world where technology is all that matters), nuclear waste is giving to MAFIA owned companies to dispose, which then save money by just dumping it in the ocean...

Not joking:



and that's the tip of the iceberg... Even worse in the developing world...

>Tours of the Hanford site are available to US citizens.

Quick look at their website says it's not available to the general public. Only government officials, students, etc.

Open to the general public, but slots are very limited, currently full for 2018.


To confirm - I did such a trip this summer. It was really incredible, would recommend it to anyone interested in walking right up to the face of the reactor.

For comparison, please provide a list of nuclear power success stories.

Great, I live a mile or two roughly downwind from a site at Los Alamos where the DOE is removing the nuclear and toxic waste dump used for weapons and research waste here for 30-40 years. I’ve felt somewhat assured that they have the nuclear and toxic material secured, but realistically there’s no reason to believe they are doing a competent job.

There is a little Safecast[1] data from the area, which does show slightly higher levels, but nothing too crazy. You could add your own readings[2] to improve that (which has been on my list, downwind from Hanford).

1: http://safecast.org/tilemap/?y=35.665&x=-106.501&z=10&l=0&m=...

2: https://github.com/Safecast/General/wiki/Safecast-Devices

Interesting link, thanks. It looks like the readings are just along a major roads in Los Alamos?

I had figured there must be some independent monitoring here, because many retired nuclear engineers live in the area of the community by the cleanup.

With the history of the lab here, there are many sites that are contaminated, but most of them are within the lab bounds. Of course, dust doesn’t respect a fence. There have been some worrisome incidents, like when a water pipe burst in Los Alamos and sent water through an unregistered historic buried dumpsite that contained nuclear or toxic materials.

I looked into rented a workshop across from an empty field with the fence around it, and looked into the history of the site. It had been the waste dump it for the first several years of the lab during the Manhattan project. It turned out they had cleaned up the site a few years ago. Would I have been exposed to any radioactive or toxic and dust if I had been there during that time? Who knows. It’s not clear if they would’ve told me if I was. At the end of the street there was a milling building for uranium, plutonium and beryllium and the water treatment facility for the site, which poured all of the water straight into the ground. They’be been cleaning that up recently.

In my own work, I generally prefer to leave toxic debris undisturbed until I am ready to deal with it safely. Like asbestos, it doesn’t harm you when it’s sealed and undisturbed. It’s often worse to clean it up poorly than to leave it there.

„Congressional staff say the contamination is not surprising because the Energy Department offers bonuses to contractors if they meet tight schedules. But there are no bonuses for preventing worker contamination or preventing releases to the environment, they say.“

So that’s how it works, huh?

"Seven employee automobiles were contaminated at the plant site, according to a Jan. 9 letter from the state Department of Ecology to Doug Shoop, the federal site chief at Hanford. When one worker demanded that his contaminated car be purchased because vent ducts were potentially still contaminated, Energy Department contractors nixed it and offered him a coupon for a free detailing from a car wash, according to collective bargaining grievance records cited by union officials. The account was confirmed by two other employees."

Welcome to the world of contracting for the federal government.

> The mess has dealt the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons environmental management program yet another setback, following more than a decade of engineering miscalculations across the nation.

I get how some insignificant/"checklist checking" agencies can cause governments to fumble, or worse markets with complex fast changing circumstances resulting in revolving doors of hiring within industry or uselessly slow reaction timeframes....that's almost old news at this point, a reality we've seemed to have accepted.

But when agencies with such critical mandates as this are also so dysfunctional then it makes it hard not to cynical about the wider system from which these "solutions" continually spring from, or maybe it's just the fundamental constraints from which they operate (such as the type of people who typically staff these agencies).

Keep in mind that this governmental function, producing nuclear weapons, was started during WWII, when it had to be done now and it didn't really matter if anyone got hurt because the alternative was getting shot in France or on some Pacific island. After that, it was buried in incredible secrecy and has never had to produce visible results. In that sort of environment, dysfunction breeds unchecked.

For many years you could walk around Paducah KY with a blacklight at night, and see the fluorescence of hex dust that had blown over from the gaseous diffusion plant. Safety has been a rather inconsistent priority in this industry.

Not that surprising given the current leadership and budgetary direction at the Department of Energy. Micheal Lewis ran a great piece [0] on the Nuclear facility safeguards about a year ago, and it appears it is quite prophetic...

[0]: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/07/department-of-energy...

This appears to have happened months before Perry became the DOE leader.

You are right. My point is moot.

Alas, when we could not even fix Hanford with money in the past, I am a little worried about doing it with less cash going forward.

Money doesn't solve what's effectively a bad corporate culture.

One of the main companies involved, CH2M, has been ignoring worker radiation safety for years despite massive amounts of DOE funding. I think that endemic corruption and politicized contract awards are the major issues here.

USSR/Russia still operating version of Hanford https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayak .

The area around has been thoroughly contaminated over the 70 years. An example of a disaster there - a lake that the nasty stuff had been dumped into gets dry somewhat with wind blowing away that dust from the opened lakebed.

The promise of nuclear power in the 60s and 70s was "we don't know yet how to manage the waste, but in a few decades we'll have it sorted out". We didn't. Nobody knows how to safely decommission old nuclear facilities, how to manage nuclear waste for thousands of years.

This was a weapons site; the rules for weapons sites were dramatically laxer than for energy sites. You don't see this sort of problem at energy sites, generally.

We know how, it’s just that nobody wants to pay for it or have it stored in their state. This is a failure of politics, not technology. Ironically the result is that of course we still store the stuff, but it’s on-site in pools all over the country, which is much less secure than known alternatives. Because no one is willing to spend political capital to centralize and modernize storage in their backyard, it’s in everyone’s backyard.

But proposals need to be politically viable in order to actually be built! Human weakness is a serious failure mode in complex engineering projects and needs to be treated seriously.

But what about when collectively we decide to optimise for short-term rather than long-term? I mean that’s basically the modus operandi of politics, and that means that engineering problems — following your line of thinking — must do the same? Because getting politicians and even regular people to care about the future has proven intractable, to my mind.

That seems to be true. Although I think people can be pursuaded to care about such things. But the problem needs to be framed as a moral question rather than just an objective one. That we should adopt particular technology because it is the right thing to do.

The difficulty is that these issues will become politicised and emotional. You have people like Trump emerge who think that clean energy is an abomination. But perhaps that is a step we have to go through in order to win the argument.

> Although I think people can be pursuaded to care about such things. But the problem needs to be framed as a moral question rather than just an objective one. That we should adopt particular technology because it is the right thing to do.

Although it's somewhat distasteful to a lot of engineers, I completely agree with you here. It's difficult, but if we don't play politics, we will lose. Iterated prisoners dilemma, almost.

> The difficulty is that these issues will become politicised and emotional. You have people like Trump emerge who think that clean energy is an abomination. But perhaps that is a step we have to go through in order to win the argument.

In some ways, I think it is, yeah. A lot of the time, people (even technical ones!) don't see the future negative uses of things as particularly dire, up until it's about to come crashing down on their heads.

> We know how [...] decomission plants

There are some poeple in Tchernobyl and Fukushima that are eagerly waiting for your call with instructions.

Sarcasm aside existing long-term storage projects also turned out to be problem-prone i.e. look up Gorleben[1].

1: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/the-curse-of-gor...

Gorleben is thirty years old, and problems with it are hardly indicative of current technology. Chernobyl, also decades old, catastrophically melted down, so “decommission” seems a bit rich. Fukushima was hit by a historic tsunami, and then partially melted down.

That’s not so much sarcasm you’re employing, as misdirection.

To be fair, this is a bomb manufacturing site, not a site for generating fuel rods.

Not just a bomb material manufacturing site. The first one.

Are you serious? Fast breeders failed everywhere, they were extremely dangerous, and they didn't solved anything. Phenix and SuperPhenix in France have been pathetic failures, with frequent incidents on very dangerous (lithium cooled) installations.

The Alfa is still the fastest thing below the waves thanks to lead cooled fast reactors. They solve the coolant loss issues.

Actually it's a lead-bismuth eutectic alloy and the sub pen required steam generators to melt it in case is was frozen solid. Otherwise it's quite safer than molten sodium.

And how will this solve the nuclear waste problem exactly? Do you believe the Russians have a good track record in this matter? Did you hear of the Kola peninsula nuclear graveyard?

The nuclear waste problem can be solved by further burning it in fast breeder reactors. The problem is they're quite expensive to build and operate.

The VVER PWRs have a good track record, yes. It is the RBMK reactor that is an irresponsible design.

Just about every major nuclear power has a sub graveyard:


SuperPhenix was running within spec of the design goals when it was shutdown for political reasons.

Yes I am. How are they dangerous? Can you show me evidence of "pathetic failures"?

When they are done cleaning up they should start with all the places depleted uranium is killing people years after the US was done bombing for peace.

I wonder how many years I've taken off my life ingesting copious amounts of dirt at the ORV park just a few miles away from the Hanford site

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