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Nuclear Disaster in the US: How Bechtel Is Botching the World's Costliest Environmental Cleanup

Department of Energy scientists are alleging catastrophic mismanagement of massive cleanup efforts at Hanford, the former nuclear weapons outpost.

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During a more devastating period, such as the December 1949 "Green Run" when raw uranium fuel was being processed, a winter storm struck the region, causing heavy radioactive deposits to snow down on Richland and other rural farm communities. Samples of radioactivity taken during the Green Run incident were 1,000 times the government's recommended level, potentially impacting tens of thousands of people.

For years, the government kept documentation of potentially lethal amounts of radiation in the area classified. Not until 1986, after public demand mounted, did it release almost 20,000 pages of historical data showing how much nuclear pollution had plagued the entire region, affecting literally millions of people. As a result, a class-action suit was filed in 1991 by 2,400 individuals—"downwinders"— who claimed they had developed thyroid cancer after being exposed to radioactive iodine-131 emissions from Hanford. A jury deadlocked on the issue, which led to a 2005 mistrial. The plaintiffs appealed in 2006, and in 2008 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that downwinders are now allowed to sue the contractors that operated Hanford at the time. In July, 139 of these downwinders settled for a meager $5,683 per victim.

Yet the majority of people affected by Hanford pollution have not received compensation of any kind.

 

Today there are a total of 177 underground storage waste tanks at Hanford, 149 of which are single-shelled and considered leak-prone by the EPA. All together, these holding containers house 53 million gallons of scorching-hot radioactive goop—nearly two-thirds of the country's high-level, defense-related radioactive waste.

Many of these tanks are already leaking, and have been for some time; according to the Washington Department of Ecology's estimate, one million gallons of nuclear waste have already poisoned groundwater as it continues to seep toward the Columbia River. However, it is not only leaks that haunt Hanford's scientists and engineers. The longer the waste stays put, the more dangerous it becomes.

"In the extreme," says Alexander, "this could lead to a serious condition that remains undiscovered until it is too late and another Mayak-scale incident occurs."

Alexander is openly concerned that such an event could release dangerous amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, contaminating nearby towns and destroying much of Washington's vital agricultural economy. And despite Hanford's already seething radioactivity, the DOE is eyeing the site as a potential waste repository for additional radioactive garbage produced from medical procedures, including cancer treatments, as well as waste associated with oil and gas exploration.

Bechtel has held the rights to build WTP since 2000. The plant, like Bechtel's Hanford contract, is gargantuan. The equivalent of constructing two full-scale nuclear power plants, WTP is to one day span 65 acres and include four major nuclear facilities: Pretreatment, Low-Activity Waste Vitrification, High-Level Waste Vitrification, and an Analytical Laboratory. It's currently the largest single construction operation taking place anywhere in the United States. Not only is the proposed WTP immense, it also comes with a staggering price tag of $12.2 billion, funded solely by the public trust, part of which comes out of the annual DOE budget.

Before Bechtel, the DOE's WTP contract was with British Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (BNFL). But in May 2000, after the company had spent more than $14 billion—despite an earlier cost estimate of $7 billion—the DOE ended the contract. Bechtel was then awarded the job through a competitive contract bid, receiving a $4.3 billion deal when it assured the DOE it could do the work for less than British Nuclear Fuel's price.

Since then, however, the company's cost estimates, start dates, and deadlines have changed on numerous occasions. Bechtel has also swapped project presidents on four separate occasions, most recently installing Frank Russo as director in January 2010.

 
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