Pacific northwest USA and Washington – major nuclear radiation risk worse than Fukushima

[Andrea Kingsley, US and Nuclear Energy News Contributor]

According to Spiegel International, the deadliest place on earth for radiation contamination, is none else than the Pacific Northwest of the USA, including the state of Washington – the very heart of America.

One of the reasons is that the area’s Hanford Nuclear facility on the Columbia river currently has fifty three (53) million U.S. gallons (204,000 m³) of high-level radioactive waste and is highly radiaoctive and will still be so  for 108 years after its establishment .

The Hanford Nuclear Production Facility

In the 1950s, a nuclear complex was built in the city of Hanford, on the Columbia River for the manufacture of plutonium used in nuclear weapons, including the bomb thrown on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the life of the Hanford plant, thousands of its workers were deliberately poisoned in scientific experiments in order to see how exactly radiation destroys the human body.  And, furthermore, on December 3, 1949, as an experiment by the US government, a deadly cloud was released from the plant that was a thousand times more radioactive than the widely known one at the Three Mile Island incident.

The deadly experimental cloud was blown down all the way from the state of Washington to California and as a result, the population of the nearest rural town to Hanford, Richland, is now two times more contaminated than the people evacuated from Chernobyl and cancers, gene mutations, decay and deformities are a part of its inhabitants’ daily lives.  The people in the area of  Richland and its neighboring towns of Pasco and Kennewick (the ‘Tri-Cities’) are reckoned to be the most radiation-poisoned people on the planet.

The Hanford Radiological Disaster

The Hanford nuclear facility in its heyday had spread over 586 square miles (1,517 square kilometers), southeast of Seattle to eastern Washington. It had been the main producer of nuclear raw materials for the US during the Cold War.  Although the site was  shut down in 1988,  it still remains the most irradiated area in the entire Western Hemisphere. Fifty-two buildings at the Hanford site are still contaminated, and more than 240 square miles surrounding the site are unsafe for habitation as a result of the highly toxic radiation that is now present in the soil and water – uranium, cesium, strontium, plutonium and other deadly radionuclides.

In one part of the area, more than 216 million litres of radioactive waster and contaminated cooling water have gone from leaking tanks into the environment and more than 100,000 spent fuel rods — 2,300 tons of them —  are still present in leaky containment areas close to the Columbia river.

Up to 1971, the cooling water from the facility was pumped back into the river after cursory treatment and as a result, elevated levels of radiation have been measured further than 402 kms west at the intersection of the Columbia River and the Pacific.

There is still one active reactor on the site which has been operational since 1984. It is widely reported to be the unsafest reactors in the USA.  Furthermore, last year around 210 earthquakes abounded in the area of Hanford. Whilst the most severe was only 3.0, environmentalists are still nervous. According to Glen Spain, a regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA):-

The leaking underground tanks and the contaminated groundwater moving toward the river mean a radioactive future for the river unless the mess can be cleaned up in time to avoid a serious radiological disaster...the legacy of vast amounts of nuclear waste … is still a ticking time bomb.”

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