Nuclear Disaster in the US: How Bechtel Is Botching the World's Costliest Environmental Cleanup
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Razor wire surrounds Hanford’s makeshift borders while tattered signs warn of potential contamination and fines for those daring enough to trespass. This vast stretch of eastern Washington, covering more than 580 square miles of high desert plains, is rural Washington at its most serene. But it’s inaccessible for good reason: It is, by all accounts, a nuclear wasteland.
During World War II, the Hanford Reservation was chosen by the federal government as a location to carry out the covert Manhattan Project. Later, plutonium produced at Hanford provided fuel for the "Fat Man" bomb that President Truman ordered to be dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, killing upward of 80,000 Japanese. In all, nine nuclear reactors were built at Hanford, the last of which ceased operation in 1987. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now estimates that as a result of the nuclear work done at Hanford's facilities, 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste were produced and more than 130 million cubic yards of soil ultimately were contaminated.
During Hanford's lifespan, 475 billion gallons of radioactive wastewater were released into the ground. Radioactive isotopes have made their way up the food chain in the Hanford ecosystem at an alarming rate. Coyote excrement frequently lights up Geigers, as these scavengers feast on varmints that live beneath the earth's surface. Deer also have nuclear radiation accumulating in their bones as a result of consuming local shrubbery and water. The EPA has deemed Hanford the most contaminated site in North America—a jarring fact, as the Columbia River, lifeline for more than 10,000 farmers and dozens of commercial fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, surges along Hanford's eastern boundary.
In 1989 Hanford changed from a nuclear-weapons outpost to a massive cleanup project. Since then, the site has become the largest and most costly environmental remediation the world has ever seen.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the agency that oversees energy and the safety of handling nuclear material, supervises the cleanup efforts, which are currently undertaken by Bechtel National Inc.—infamous for its mishandling of Iraq reconstruction efforts—and a handful of other companies like URS and CH2M HILL. But despite more than two decades of cleanup efforts and billions of dollars spent, only a tiny fraction of Hanford's radioactivity has been safely contained. And the final costs for the Hanford cleanup process could exceed $120 billion—higher even than the $100 billion tab for the International Space Station.
Now outrage is brewing at Hanford. Some prominent employees working on the project are blowing the whistle over what they believe to be dismissals of internal scientific assessments, as well as alleged abuses of managerial power that have been called to the attention of the Obama Administration, to no avail. These staffers point to institutional failures within the DOE and Bechtel as toxic as the nuclear waste they're tasked to clean up, asserting that the DOE lacks critical experts on staff to oversee the project and Bechtel rushed through shoddy design plans in order to pocket some quick cash. The consequences are not only jeopardizing safety and putting the project at risk of failure, they are also likely to cost taxpayers even more money should fatally flawed construction ultimately require a complete overhaul.
"We need alternatives to the current plan right now," Dr. Donald Alexander, a high-level DOE physical chemist working at Hanford, says in distress. "We need a different design and more options on the table. This appears to be a hard thing for [DOE and Bechtel] management to accept. They have spent years of time and money on a bad design, and it will delay the project even more."