Hanford Nuclear Waste Storage

To Become A Nuclear Waste Expert – Deputy Secretary Of Energy “Sleeps At A Holiday Inn Express”

The Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility is seen at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington. Photo taken in 2005. Photo by Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

Sue Prent, Author

If the Department of Energy (DOE), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and other federal agencies cannot solve a problem cheaply and swiftly, they simply define it out of existence – and these agencies have the statutory authority to do so! This is the approach the DOE is attempting to take for all nuclear waste management – including atomic bomb waste, atomic reactor waste, nuclear weapons manufacturing waste, atomic test laboratories, and uranium mining waste. At least one or more such facilities exist in almost every state in the U.S.

Prior to his appointment as U.S. Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, wasn’t even aware that the DOE was responsible for oversight of nuclear weapons and regulatory control of all nuclear materials within the United States. Therefore it is no surprise to most of us that Mr. Perry had no idea of the exorbitant costs associated with the clean-up and safe disposal of all atomic waste encompassing everything from atomic test labs and bomb making facilities to the final disposal of America’s worn-out power reactors and their highly radioactive parts and fuel. 

According to The Columbian, Perry was shocked…SHOCKED, I tell you…when he learned of the escalating cost of clean-up at the most contaminated spot in the country, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. The Columbian continued:

“At the end of January, a new life cycle cost and schedule report was released by the Department of Energy, putting the estimated remaining cost of Hanford clean up, plus several years of monitoring, at $323 billion to $677 billion.”

Fairewinds readers are no doubt more familiar with the Hanford site than was the newly minted Secretary of Energy, and know that Hanford was the site where some of our nation’s earliest atomic bombs and reactors were developed and tested.  

Ever since the mid-twentieth century, Hanford has been central to our nation’s quandary over what to do with the unique problem of nuclear waste and which presents ever new and vexing toxicities as it takes thousands and thousands of years to fully decay away. Hanford has roughly 56-million-gallons of the deadly radioactive sludge on its site. It’s been 80-years since Hanford started producing plutonium for nuclear weapons and atomic bombs, and while the facility stopped production more than 30-years ago, no technology has appeared on the horizon capable of cleaning up or containing the waste.

The Hanford Site workers are ill and have been contaminated by radioactive dust, and the site continues slowly leaking; its poisonous payload inching its way toward the great Columbia River!

To quote the November 21, 2013 issue of Newsweek Magazine:

“The town's pervasive dark humor alludes to a darker past - and a troubling, radioactive present. The plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki [August 9, 1945] came from what's known today as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, around which Richland grew and thrived. During the Cold War, Hanford churned out plutonium for our nuclear arsenal. Then the Soviet threat ended, and the residents in this corner of eastern Washington were left with what is routinely called the most toxic place in the Western Hemisphere.

Today, it is not a Soviet missile that threatens this once-pristine high desert. If disaster strikes Richland, it will be because the federal government (namely, the Department of Energy) allowed 56 million gallons of radioactive waste to fester in this sandy soil, where some say it is rife for an explosion. And, critics charge, the DOE has watched its prime contractor on the site, Bechtel, grossly overcharge the American public for a waste-treatment plant so poorly built that, once it's finished (if it ever gets finished), feeding nuclear material through it could cause a catastrophe.”

Of course, Secretary Perry’s reaction to the mess he had inherited from all DOE predecessors was to blame the messenger, objecting loudly to the skyrocketing cost of waste management and cleanup at Hanford. Having no science background that could prepare him to understand the nature of radiation and how it evolves, he apparently has decided that nuclear waste can simply be “managed” out of existence. For this mind-boggling feat of gross malpractice, it helps to have a collaborator as ignorant and unprincipled as the Secretary himself… 

DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar announced the renewal of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at the InnovationXLab Energy Storage Summit this morning. (Image by SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.)

Enter Perry’s Under Secretary for Science, Paul Dabbar, who also has a BS in Marine Engineering and served for two years as a officer in the nuclear Navy. Then Mr.Dabbar chased the big bucks, earning his MBA and going right to work for J.P. Morgan in energy sector mergers and acquisitions in 1996, and from whence he was plucked in 2017 for the role he now serves.

The combined total of nuclear experience for both Mr. Perry and Mr. Dabbar is therefore the two years Mr. Dabbar spent floating underwater in a nuclear submarine. But this lack of experience did not stop the dynamic duo from trying to solve the cost and delays associated with clean-up at Hanford, at Savannah River in South Carolina, and at the Idaho National Laboratory (two other notorious and noxious sites severely impacted by improper nuclear waste management) by simply reclassifying the toxic sludge to supposedly be less hazardous, thereby allegedly qualifying it for simple on-site burial. A little magic goes a long way at DOE!

According to Mr.Dabbar in The Guardian:

“This administration is proposing a responsible, results-driven solution that will finally open potential avenues for the safe treatment and removal of the lower-level waste,” said Paul Dabber,the energy under secretary. “This will accelerate clean up and reduce risk.”

Mr. Dabbar’s quote is federal mismanagement speak for “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” Whose risk is Mr. Dabbar reducing exactly? Certainly not the people who work at Hanford or live along the Columbia River!

In all things nuclear, we citizens are assured that standards set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the DOE will be “maintained.” But that in itself is an absurd assertion, since those standards will be dramatically relaxed simply by re-classification on the administrative level.

In a June 5, 2019 article aptly entitled: US to label nuclear waste as less dangerous to quicken cleanup, The Guardian wrote:

“The US government plans to reclassify some of the nation’s most dangerous radioactive waste to lower its threat level, outraging critics who say the move would make it cheaper and easier to walk away from cleaning up nuclear weapons production sites in Washington state, Idaho and South Carolina.

The Department of Energy said on Wednesday that labeling some high-level waste as low level will save $40bn in cleanup costs across the nation’s entire nuclear weapons complex. The material that has languished for decades in the three states would be taken to low-level disposal facilities in Utah or Texas, the agency said.”

I do not doubt that Mr.Dabbar is considered a sound business person by the likes of J.P. Morgan, and that he also has a smattering of nuclear lingo from two Navy years; but, that hardly qualifies him to judge the scientific basis for any decisions regarding public exposure ornuclear waste management in the role he has taken at the DOE?

At first, I was inclined to assume that a “nuclear engineering officer” must be really smart andhave somescientific background,and then I discoveredthat the guidelines aredisappointingly thin. In a recruiting bulletin for UCLA details, basic requirements to qualify as a nuclear engineering officer are as follows: 

You need to have completed 1 year of calculus and calculus based physics, be within 2.5 years of graduating, and you are a U.S. citizen.”

Additionally, the Navy promises“a rigorous theoretical and technical education that prepares (you) for managing 15-20 sailors that (sic) operate some of the most complicated engineering systems on the planet.

So, Mr. Perry has no nuclear experience and Mr. Dabbar, the guy making serious radiation public health decisions at DOE, was actually a Navy manager of less than 20-sailors, who took calculus for one year, and who then moved on with an MBA to a well-paid career in the corporate Wall Street financial machine.

At this point, I would like you to pause and suggest you ask yourself if you would trust someone who simply “slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night” to rate and direct the waste classification of the most toxic radioactive waste site in the U.S.?

Who do you want protecting your health, environment, family, and community from some of the most toxic substances on earth? 

  • What is in the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the food you eat? Should that decision occur at the hand of a non-scientist, or worse, a financial manager?

  • Or should your community be free to utilize real science and community voices to determine how your level of radioactive exposure will be rated, managed, and processed? 

In this DOE Perry/Dabbar created scenario, your tax dollars are not working for you, but instead saving corporate conglomerates and weapons manufacturers billions upon billions of dollars! At least $40 billion to quote The Guardian.