Nuclear Power Isn’t Clean — It Creates Hellish Wastelands of Radioactive Sewage

Joshua Frank’s brilliant Atomic DaysHaymarket Books’ “The Untold Story of Nuclear Power” takes us into the horrible bowels that are nuclear power.

Frank’s excursion into the radioactive wasteland of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in eastern Washington State’s Columbia River Valley, is the ultimate real-world nightmare.

Unfortunately, it serves as a wailing syren for the future with the atomic weapons wastes from our commercial reactors.

“Like a ceaseless conveyer belt,” Frank writes, “Hanford generated plutonium for nearly four long decades, reaching maximum production during the height of the Cold War.”

It is now, he says “a sprawling wasteland of radioactive and chemic sewage … the costliest environmental remediation project the world has ever seen and, arguably, the most contaminated place on the entire planet.”

Current cost estimates to clean up the place, says Frank, “could run anywhere between $316 and $662 billion.”

But that depends on a few definitions, including the most critical: What does it mean to “clean up” a hellhole like Hanford? If you want to remove plutonium from a radioactive wasteland, what do you do so that it doesn’t create another radioactive wasteland? What does this say about the 90,000 tonsMore than 50 U.S. Commercial Reactor Sites are home to high-level wastes

To put it into perspective, Hanford is currently being preserved at $2.6 billion annually. Frank says that the clean up estimate has more than tripled in the last six years. We believe that it could easily rise to $6 trillion within six years.

The environmental consequences are immense. Hanford is a chaotic mess, as Frank well documents. Giant tanks are leaking. Plutonium, along with other apocalyptic chemicals, are rapidly moving toward the Columbia River. They could be permanently poisoned. Local residents have been poisoned with “permissible permanent concentration” of lethal isotopes on vegetables, livestock, and in the air and drinking water.

Such exposures have even included a deliberate experiment known as the “Green Run” in which Hanford operatives “purposely released dangerous amounts of radioactive iodine.”

These emissions are particularly harmful to embryos, foetuses, and small children. Their thyroids can easily be destroyed (as we are seeing at Fukushima). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted information about how wind currents would carry fallout.

The product was a “death mile” stretching from the Columbia River basin to the ocean, filled with casualties of radioactive poisoning.

The result of decades of disastrous leaks from faulty storage tanks has been devastating. Los Angeles Times reported that more radioactivity was stored at Hanford “than would be released during an entire nuclear war.”

Fukushima may soon get a green light from the government to dump their poisons into the Pacific. This could have potentially devastating consequences.

At Hanford, “the waste was so hot it would boil … for decades to come,” i.e., right up to the present day, writes Frank.

Frank documents a frightening array of catastrophic leaks into soil, water tables, and streams throughout the reservation, despite official denials. By 1985, he writes, “despite $7 billion spent over the previous ten years, no progress had been made in ridding the aging tanks” of their deadly offal.

To this day “Hanford remains the most complex environmental mess in the United States,” riddled with problems that provide huge profits for corporations that land clean-up contracts and then fail to deliver, exceeding the complexity even of the infamous waste dump at West Valley, New York, and the highly radioactive fallout zone at Santa Susana, California, just north of Los Angeles.

But Hanford’s not alone. Frank takes us to Chelyabinsk (the site of a Soviet-era disaster) and another wasteland around Kyshtym. Like the 1000-square-mile “dead zone” around Chernobyl, Hanford is full of areas where human life is perilous at best.

To put the nuclear power industry in a larger context, Frank guides us through the “permanent war economy” birthed during WWII, and discusses Franklin Roosevelt’s ambivalent relations with the “Malefactors of Great Wealth” who often stood in the way of making the U.S. the “Arsenal of Democracy,” and who once even plotted to kill him.

The giant Bechtel Corporation decided to build an A-Bomb and used Hanford’s 120-mile reserve to produce 103.5 metric tonnes of plutonium. This is perhaps the most deadly substance known to man.

However, there was no solution to what might happen to the area in the aftermath. The Waste Treatment Plant meant to “vitrify” rad wastes into glass began construction in 2002, with plans to open in 2011. It has become, in both cost and area, “the largest single construction operation taking place anywhere in the United States,” now with an estimated price tag of $41 billion and a projected opening in 2036.

With “a string of bungled jobs under its belt,” Bechtel’s failed “Big Dig” in Boston — a much-vaunted tunnel from Logan Airport to downtown — reflected its work at Hanford when a collapse killed a 39-year-old woman and resulted in $357.1 million settlement exempting management from criminal prosecution.

As the U.S.’s fourth-largest privately held company, Bechtel spending $1.8 million on D.C. lobbying in 2019-20 was par for the course. Frank writes that the payback comes in the tragic diseases experienced by Hanford workers such as Lawrence Rouse and Abe Garza, often amid terse, well funded official denials. Researchers like Karen Wetterhahn and veterans like Victor Skaar have joined Vietnam victims of Agent Orange in being victimized by exposures they were repeatedly assured were “safe.” Whistleblowers like Ed Bricker were even subjected to intense spying and sabotage by close associates he was deceived into accepting as friends.

Meanwhile activists like Russell Jim of the Yakama Tribe began to force “an immeasurable amount of transparency” around the Hanford disaster. Their decades of community organizing brought about a growing demand for accountability, which has transformed the political climate surrounding the cleanup.

The debate has now gotten to the commercial use of nuclear power.

Because of Hanford’s nuclear presence, five atomic reactors were constructed in Washington State, promising electricity that would be “too cheap to meter.”

Due to huge delays and cost overruns, the Washington Public Power System fell into the largest public bankruptcy in American history. Only one of the nukes is currently operational.

Some climate activists are, unfortunately, self-proclaimed. fallen into the atomic pitShe argued that nuclear power should be pursued in order to lower greenhouse gasses, in light of the imminent threat of climate disruption.

But they all ignore the big lesson Joshua Frank teaches us about Hanford: All the rhetoric in the world can’t cover for the physical realities of dealing with atomic radiation. The planet will not be cooled by atomic fires at 571 degrees Fahrenheit. The mines, the mills, the fuel fabrication, the reactors themselves, the waste dumps, all that horrendous multitrillion-dollar paraphernalia — they together comprise the most lethal and expensive technological failure in human history.

Many reactor promoters have long vehemently denied any connection between their “peaceful atom” and the scourge of war, but anti-nuclear activists have exposed the falsity of those claims. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an advocacy organization based in Britain, opposes the creation of nuclear power stations and nuclear weapons. writes:

The 1940s and 1950s saw the development of the atomic-bomb programme. In Britain, the civil nuclear power programme was deliberately used as a cover for military activities…. Both the development of nuclear weapons and industries are mutually beneficial. Scientists from Sussex University confirmed this once again in 2017, stating that the government is using the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station to subsidise Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons system.

As the atomic energy business is increasingly priced out of the electricity market by wind, solar, batteries, and increased efficiency and conservation, we will likely see the nuclear power industry increasingly admitting to what it always was — a necessary servantof the nuclear weapons sector.

Fittingly, the only future for atomic reactors will be as a bottomless pit for ecological suicide and massive public subsidies — exactly like Hanford.

Indeed, for readers truly interested in the future of atomic energy, take a good look at how it plays in Joshua Frank’s Atomic Days. Ask how quickly we can cover the entire area with solar panels.