Friday, February 1, 2008

Hanford, Nuclear Energy, and NIMBY

Recently, I found an interesting (albeit somewhat technical) report about high-level nuclear waste leaking at the Hanford Nuclear Site. (A powerpoint presentation on the leaks can be found here) The site, owned by the US Department of Energy, is where much of the plutonium for the nuclear weapons program was produced. The site consists of old nuclear reactors, former plutonium and uranium reprocessing facilities, and most importantly a nuclear waste facility. More information on Hanford, including its history, can be found in the Wikipedia article.

It has a large amount (53 million gallons/200 million liters) of high level nuclear waste.

The important points of the report are:

DOE admits at least one million gallons (4 million liters) of waste has leaked. However, how much more has leaked is not known.

The DOE has continually broken the regulations which apply to nuclear and hazardous wastes. These include rules related to containment, monitoring, and retrieval of wastes.

Sixty percent of the waste is in single-shell tanks,instead of double shell tanks which include a leak detection system between the shells. Single shell tanks are in violation of all hazardous and radioactive waste laws.

One tank has been designated by DOE as not leaking despite evidence that it is leaking.

The contamination due to the leaked wastes is much greater in both amount and extent that is admitted by DOE. Importantly, the radioactive plumes are heading toward the Columbia River.

Characterization of the actual amount of contamination needs to be done. This characterization is not being proposed by DOE.

DOE has attempted to avoid the disclosure of the tanks leaking. This includes not sufficient data on the leaks. This has been also pointed out by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Department of Energy (DOE) claims that it is self-regulating and not bound by federal or state laws related to the waste. It has therefore, ignored or avoided many requirements for containing and monitoring waste, both that in the tanks and that leaked to the environment. As noted in the report, DOE does have an exemption for storage, but not if the waste is released to the environment.

This relates to a number of topics I have touched on before. In my last post I talked about NIMBY (Not In My BackYard). This is a perfect example of why NIMBY exists.

DOE's self-regulatory claim is a variation on the national security argument. Even though the DOE does not explicitly use "national security" as their excuse in this case, the basis of the DOE getting an exemption in the case of storage is for exactly that reason. For discussion on the national security argument, see this blog entry.

It also shows the problems with nuclear waste. If the government cannot handle the waste on this site properly, how can it be responsible for all the waste produced by the nuclear power plants? The problems with the Hanford site show that nuclear waste is not a small problem, as I have heard some "experts" claim. I touched on this problem at this blog.

Another thing this shows is how voluntary standards do not work. Since DOE thinks it does not have to follow the specific laws and regulations, it then does what it simply what it wants to do, no more. That is exactly how voluntary standards work in industry, too.

I now ask should we trust the nuclear industries?