JUNE 10, 1996
What to do with discarded nuclear warheads. Rod Minott of KCTS-Seattle reports from Hanford, Washington.
ROD MINOTT: Dave Romine spends his days handling one of the most lethal leftovers of the Cold War, plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. He gathers plutonium debris into a jar which contains enough plutonium for a bomb 25 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. Even so, Romine showed little sign of fear.
DAVE ROMINE, Hanford Worker: It's definitely a dangerous job, but I mean, so is working on a car. You know, you can drop a transmission on your foot and break it. But this, there are special precautions for it.
ROD MINOTT: The 560 square mile Hanford Nuclear Reservation was the country's main plutonium factory until it shut down in the 1980's. Since then, workers like Romine have been cleaning up and processing the debris for safe storage. Now he and others might be called on to handle a lot more atomic waste. That's because the United States and Russia have begun scrapping thousands of warheads in their nuclear stockpile. Hanford is one of the top six sites being considered for the storage and possible disposal of enough weapons-grade plutonium to build 10,000 nuclear bombs. Jim Mecca at the Department of Energy says it's important to act quickly to dispose of the bomb material. He says the U.S. must show other nations that it's serious about stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and complying with disarmament treaties.
JIM MECCA, Department of Energy: It is an act of, if you wish, good faith, to show that we, indeed, are destroying some of the stockpile, making it unavailable for weapons either by us or future generations.
ROD MINOTT: The work could mean an economic boom to the cities near Hanford which have prospered from the plutonium connection and even paid homage to it. A local high school team, the Bombers, uses a mushroom cloud for its logo. Romine thinks it would be good not only for the economy but for the country if Hanford were picked as the site.
DAVE ROMINE: It's just in general a better idea that we have it here because the people here know how to deal with this material, rather than sending it somewhere else that it may not be dealt with properly.
ROD MINOTT: But others, who live and work near Hanford, say importing plutonium warheads poses too many dangers. Tom Bailie is a life-long resident of the area. He farms land 20 miles east of the Hanford site. In the late 1980's, Bailie and other neighbors learned the smokestacks of Hanford's plants rained large amounts of radiation on them throughout the early years of the Cold War. Bailie believes it's harmed his health.
TOM BAILIE, Farmer: I grew up miserably sick. I can remember my hair falling out three times, lots of radiation sickness, vomiting, and to find out as an adult that I'm sterile.
ROD MINOTT: While the accuracy of Bailie's health claims remain uncertain, federal study continues on the impact of Hanford's radiation releases. Meantime, seeking to recover medical expenses, Bailie and 4600 other so-called downwinders have filed suit against Hanford Contractors. Bailie says he does not trust the government to handle more plutonium.
TOM BAILIE: Well, it seems pretty crazy that they manufactured it here, put us all at risk, and harmed a huge population here in Eastern Washington, downwinders, and now they're bringing it back. What, didn't they get us good enough the first time? I mean, it's just absolute insanity.
ROD MINOTT: Cleanup of the atomic waste at Hanford is already expected to take 40 years and upwards of $50 billion.
PERSON ON PHONE: Hello. Heart of America Northwest.
ROD MINOTT: Environmentalists like Gerald Pollet worry importing more plutonium will only delay that cleanup, a process already being threatened by extensive budget cuts.
GERALD POLLET, Heart of America Northwest: We know plutonium will make more waste at Hanford. It complicates it, and the federal government doesn't look like it has the willpower to pay for cleaning up Hanford already. If you don't have the willpower to pay for cleaning up from the plutonium you made at Hanford, well, why should we accept more to come here?
ROD MINOTT: DOE says while it can't rule out budget cuts, a delay in cleaning up the most polluted areas at Hanford is unlikely.
JIM MECCA: I don't see any of our major identified areas as being impacted by a program like this. We know pretty well what the scope of that work needs to be for let's say the next three to four to five years, and those budgets should not suffer. There should be none of that money diverted.
ROD MINOTT: There also is no consensus on how to dispose of the extra plutonium that could land at Hanford. The material stays radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Many area businesses think it would be best to mix the warhead plutonium with uranium, making a fuel that then could be burned to generate electricity. The burning would be done at commercial nuclear power plants across the country, including possibly this one at the Hanford site. Rod Weberling is an executive with a nuclear utility.
ROD WEBERLING, Washington Public Power: As we look at it, we look at it as a very good economical move on our part, and I think it'll return to the rate payers in the Northwest a real benefit in terms of cheaper power.
ROD MINOTT: But critics say burning the plutonium could jeopardize international security. Right now, U.S. policy forbids using plutonium as fuel at civilian power plants. That's to dissuade whether countries diverting plutonium from their civilian nuclear programs to make atomic bombs. Environmentalists also warn burning poses too many risks to the environment and public health.
ROD WEBERLING: More plutonium being made into fuel means more waste at places like Hanford that are already highly contaminated. And it means more people along transportation routes are at risk.
ROD MINOTT: But the Department of Energy says the risk during transportation would be minimized by safeguards.
JIM MECCA: There would be restrictions on the transportation. Weather is one of those. States and local governments will be involved. There'd have to be adequate emergency planning.
ROD MINOTT: Environmentalists would prefer that the plutonium being cased in glass, a method now being tested at DOE's Savannah River South Carolina plant for treating highly radioactive liquid wastes. But DOE says the glass logs from Hanford could then be shipped elsewhere for burial. But skeptics of this approach say the technology for glassifying plutonium has yet to be shown to work. Eventually, all high-level waste is supposed to be stored in a national permanent waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But that project is a decade behind schedule. Some experts doubt it will ever open.
SPOKESMAN: The radioactive waste management universe is huge.
ROD MINOTT: Without Yucca Mountain, critics fear that Hanford will become the site of choice for nuclear waste from other federal facilities. In fact, the DOE's drafted nine environmental studies that include Hanford as a site for additional and nuclear hazardous materials.
GERALD POLLET: We don't know what the risks are from all these decisions. They're being piecemealed, the public's not being shown what the risks are in just one place at one time, with one public hearing. Instead, we're being told we'll take it one step at a time, and all the steps look like a trail converging on Hanford.
DAVE NULTON, Department of Energy: There have been no decisions made. There is no hidden agenda. We're trying to do a fair and equitable evaluation of the, of the alternatives.
SPOKESPERSON: Washington State will not tolerate bringing plutonium in here--period.
ROD MINOTT: At public hearings, DOE has heard some sharp criticism of its plutonium plants. But the agency continues to insist the nuclear material can be handled safely. A final decision on storing and disposal is expected by the end of this year. Jim Mecca says U.S. consensus on what to do with its plutonium remains critical to international security.
JIM MECCA: It's in good faith that I think the country shows, um, in the example it sets, hopefully for the Russians and the other nuclear powers, I think. It's sort of like a window opening up. It may be the only opportunity to go to work on, on a nuclear, a nuclear weapons-free world. And this opportunity may never come again.
ROD MINOTT: But DOE says it would like states to find a way to share Cold War waste fairly. But critics vow if those efforts fail, they will put on the ballot an initiative to block the government removing any atomic wastes to Hanford.