Last Tuesday morning, a tunnel at the nation’s largest nuclear cleanup site partially collapsed, leaving a 20-by-20 hole that exposed rail cars carrying some materials with dose levels so lethal they could kill a person within an hour, according to Hanford worker safety activists.
Responding to the emergency, authorities sent hundreds of cleanup workers indoors, where they were told not to eat or drink. After all, the tunnel in question connected to a plutonium uranium extraction facility, where engineers once produced radioactive materials for the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki. The US Department of Energy filled in the hole, announced that it didn’t find evidence of environmental contamination, and pledged to implement “longer term-measures to further reduce risks.”
But long before the radioactive tunnel caved, activists and watchdogs familiar with the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Eastern Washington saw a collapse, or another type of emergency, coming.
“It was more than predictable,” says Gerry Pollet, a Washington state representative and executive director of Hanford advocacy group Heart of America Northwest. “It was inevitable, and the Energy Department essentially sought to cover up the fact that it was likely to happen.”
A 2016 agreement between state and federal agencies granted the US Department of Energy (DOE) another 20-year delay in its deadline to remove contamination from Hanford’s central plateau. During the process of delaying the cleanup, Hanford activists like Pollet fought hard against the deadline extension, arguing that the PUREX tunnels, where nuclear waste had been stored since 1964, presented a significant risk. An emergency at the site, especially in the event of an earthquake, could turn the tunnels into a radioactive disaster. Activists lost that battle, but received one small concession: The Department of Energy committed to conducting a structural assessment of the tunnels the following year.
Now, the recent collapse appears to have validated some Hanford watchdogs’ fears that the Trump administration’s gravest nuclear threat may not come from North Korea, but a rotting, radioactive mess that the US government created in its own backyard. If the Hanford cleanup continues at its slow pace while the White House weakens the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory oversight, advocates warn that Hanford could create a nuclear calamity across the Pacific Northwest.
Other than the DOE, which regulates its own worker safety, the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington State are the only two entities overseeing the cleanup of Hanford, the biggest nuclear superfund site in the Western Hemisphere. Under an obscure environmental law, the EPA technically has authority to order the long-delayed removal of hazardous wastes that pose an imminent risk to safety—like the wastes hidden in the Hanford tunnels.
But Trump’s proposed budget would cut the EPA program that oversees Hanford by 30 percent. And to Pollet, who characterized the EPA as “silent” in response to the tunnel crisis, the EPA’s response proves that it’s been effectively neutered under Trump.
“It's just been deafening because they don't have the staffing, authority, or independence anymore to step in in response to a near disaster that happened this week,” Pollet says.
Asked if the agency would step in to use its authority to speed up the hazardous waste removal, the EPA demurred: In a statement, a spokesman said that the Washington State Department of Ecology, which is under EPA oversight at Hanford, issued an administrative order to make sure that a structural evaluation of the PUREX tunnels would be done by July 1, 2017, three months ahead of an existing deadline for a structural evaluation of the tunnels.
The same statement stressed that Washington State’s ecology department bears responsibility for enforcing deadlines and permitting the Department of Energy’s work on the tunnels.
The ecology department, meanwhile, maintains it does have concerns about the deadline extension for Hanford’s cleanup or Trump’s proposed EPA budget cuts. Alex Smith, nuclear waste program manager for the department, told The Stranger the state asked for a closer deadline to look at the tunnels due to concerns about the deadline extension last year.
As for the budget cuts, Smith said that officials had assured the ecology department that Hanford remained a priority. “We really hope that is the case,” she said.
But it’s not just the EPA that’s responsible for cleaning messes at Hanford. According to a lawsuit filed by the Washington State Attorney General, the Department of Energy is also refusing to take appropriate precautions to protect cleanup workers and compensate them when they get sick. Right now, the only recourse for those workers who have been or will be sickened by Hanford’s toxic legacy may rest on the strength of the country’s environmental regulations—regulations that could be rendered meaningless if Trump has his way over the next four to eight years.
Hanford is a strange place by any measure. Charles Mudede, visiting the site in 2010, described its post-apocalyptic ecology: a place where radioactive wasps build nests from radioactive mud and radioactive rabbits leave piles of radioactive rabbit droppings. When waste was generated from the site’s nine different nuclear reactors, it was often just dumped it into the surrounding soil.
Hanford is the only site in the United States where engineers used at least four different processes to separate plutonium from other chemicals. As Larry Haler, a Washington state representative and former Hanford accident investigator, once put it to a state senate panel: “We never used the same chemicals in removing plutonium from our reactor fuel.”
“For every ton of fuel you have, you get only eight ounces of plutonium,” Haler continued. “Each shipment of fuel from a reactor could be anywhere from 20 to 100 tons every time it would go to a processing facility. They used different kinds of chemicals all the time. There was never one set of chemicals they used.”
As a result, these processes created new compounds that the world had never seen before. Prior to the Hanford cleanup, scientists believed that there was only one form of technetium-99, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear weapons production. When scientists visited Hanford, they found three different forms of the chemical. Now, cleaning up technetium-99 remains one of the site’s biggest challenges.
And that’s just one example of the complexity the Hanford cleanup represents. There’s 2,000 pounds of technetium-99 at Hanford comingled with 56 million gallons of nuclear waste. Those millions of gallons of nuclear waste live in 177 storage tanks that are more than half a century old. And long after the bomb fell at Nagasaki, the nuclear materials stored at Hanford continue to take a toll on humans today.
In 2010, Abe Garza started coughing and never stopped. Then the nosebleeds came. Bertolla Bugarin could hear her husband’s lungs crackle when he wheezed. When Abe Garza finally went to the doctor, the doctor put him on a regimen of steroids.
“He kept going back to work because they kept telling him it was probably asthma and allergies,” Garza’s wife remembers. “They said that happens here in the Tri-Cities.”
Garza, who worked as an instrument technician at the Hanford cleanup site for 35 years, required hospitalization multiple times for low oxygen levels. Then, in 2015, his health took a turn for the worse. That summer, Abe Garza was working at a facility with one of Hanford’s 177 waste storage tanks when one of the tanks vented, Bugarin says. Her husband went to the hospital for the exposure, and she says he didn’t come out the same.
“He couldn't remember what happened,” Garza says. “He was in a fog. His lungs were extremely irritated. It’s like he couldn’t function at all.”
These days, Garza’s husband will sometimes stop what he’s doing and show a “blank look” on his face as if he doesn’t know where he is.
“To see a person who loves to learn and make his brain work get reduced to this, it’s heartbreaking,” Bugarin says. “It’s totally heartbreaking to see a person’s brain get wasted like that.”
Since beginning work at Hanford, Garza says he has been diagnosed with reactive airway disease, vocal cord dysfunction, asthma, heavy metal poisoning, scarred lungs, chronic bronchitis, and toxic encephalopathy, a neurological disorder caused by exposure to industrial neurotoxicants and heavy metals.
Some doctors who have examined workers like Garza say these conditions only exist because of his experiences in working at Hanford, but the Department of Energy and its contractors often don’t agree.
State legislators like Pollet tried to introduce a bill requiring the state fund some of the expenses for sick Hanford workers, but the bill died on the Senate floor after passing the House.
Tom Carpenter, a Hanford worker organizer who has worked on nuclear accountability issues for more than 30 years, calls the Department of Energy “a walking billboard of negligence,” claiming the federal government puts nukes ahead of the environment and worker safety. In the last decade of testifying and writing letters to dozens of legislators, Carpenter has watched cycles of interest from the public and politicians wax and wane.
“I've been very frustrated,” he says. “Clearly [the DOE] is not going to do anything unless they're made to do it. And the only way we can do something is through court action.”
In the summer of 2014, Carpenter finally found a sympathetic ear in Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who filed a lawsuit against the federal government and its Department of Energy contractor for allegedly failing to take adequate safety precautions for Hanford workers. The ongoing suit relies on one obscure federal environmental law that requires any entity handling hazardous waste to do so in a way that “does not pose an imminent and substantial threat to human health.”
One might not imagine environmental law as the guard between workers and employers’ shady practices. But in the Hanford workers’ case, it may be necessary. Unlike other workplaces, theirs is self-regulating: only the DOE oversees safety, and neither the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration nor state regulators inspect Hanford.
But if the sick Hanford workers’ cases rest on one obscure environmental law, Carpenter is worried the Trump administration could sweep it away. Or, if the Trump administration doesn’t hit the delete button on environmental laws—as it’s threatened to do so in an executive order that promises the elimination of two regulations for every new regulation created—Carpenter worries the White House could decide to stop delegating authority for the EPA to oversee the Hanford cleanup through the state. He asks: “What if the government was to say that’s too expensive, that’s too hard, let’s just put concrete in tanks and walk away?”
“I think more likely that won't happen,” Carpenter says, “but they will be trying to take shortcuts on safety. We do know that the Trump administration is pro corporate, and corporations are effectively running the Hanford site.”
Carpenter explains his nightmare scenario in these political conditions. “If you don't caretake Hanford—if you don't make sure things are safe on a daily or even an hourly basis—something could blow away a three-state area with nuclear contamination, and you have thousands of square miles inhabitable,” he says. “It’s not an unreal scenario at all.”
In March, the Trump administration proposed EPA budget cuts that would effectively hobble the entire agency.
Those budget cuts could have significant impact at Hanford, says former regional EPA administrator Dennis McLerran, Between 2010 and 2017, McLerran was in charge of overseeing EPA operations in the Northwest between Alaska and Idaho. Even then, the EPA shrank significantly as a result of the Obama-era budget sequestration drummed up by Congressional Republicans.
“EPA staffing went down from 18,000 to 15,000 just during the eight years of the Obama administration,” McLerran says. “A staff that was already overburdened, really lean and thin in its ability, is another facing a 30 percent in cuts.”
Reducing EPA oversight could lead to serious problems, McLerran says. In his time as EPA administrator, he saw Hanford contractors getting written up for problems like mislabeling drums of nuclear waste. But with even fewer resources, he’s not sure how the agency can manage.
“There's a point at which you cannot do the same amount of work with fewer resources,” he says. “If you look at the significant level of cuts, that would really take it beyond the breaking point.”
Bertolla Bugarin, the wife of a sick Hanford worker, says she too fears what could happen to the nuclear reservation under Trump.
Trump’s proposed budget does increase DOE funding for nuclear cleanup sites across the country by some $400 million, but given the DOE’s inaction on worker health issues and its delayed cleanup deadlines, Garza doubts giving more money to the DOE will make anything better at Hanford.
“I feel like these monies are going to the contractors, not for safety issues and cleanup,” she says. “It's going to line the pockets of corporate greed.”
In this respect, Garza finds herself a minority in the red Tri-Cities area, where more than half the population voted for Trump. But her concerns about Hanford’s oversight and safety issues don’t just affect her and her husband. They also impact her grandson, who just started working at Hanford as a 23-year-old.
“Four years ago, we started planning for him to go there in his grandpa’s footsteps,” she says. “Now I carry so much guilt.”