The nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan might provide some lessons for Washington state, which is home to one nuclear reactor and the nation's largest inventory of nuclear defense waste, writes guest columnist Tom Carpenter.

Share story

AS we all watch the nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan, and with the approach of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, questions arise about nuclear risks from the Hanford Nuclear Site.

Washington has one operating reactor — the Columbia Generating Station — located on leased land on the Hanford Site. Although safety improvements have been made in the past few years, this reactor shares three features in common with the Japanese reactors under stress: They are all located near seismic faults, they are boiling-water reactors, and their spent nuclear fuel is located above ground rather than behind any containment structures.

This means that a radiation leak from the spent-fuel pool could flow directly into the atmosphere.

A loss of coolant to these pools could cause the fuel to melt, catch on fire and release large inventories of radioactivity. This is what is happening now in Japan at Fukushima Unit 4. Spent-fuel ponds typically hold five to 10 times more long-lived radioactivity than a reactor core. A 1997 Brookhaven National Laboratory report for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) found that a severe pool fire could render about 188 square miles uninhabitable, cause as many as 28,000 cancer fatalities and cost $59 billion in damage.

The Hanford Site’s nuclear defense reactors have been shut down. However, Hanford hosts the largest inventory of high-level nuclear waste in the United States. About 53 million gallons of this waste is stored in 177 aging underground waste tanks. Because they are beyond their “design life,” a third of these tanks have failed and leaked. Even without factoring in the risk of seismic events, the radioactive waste in these tanks poses risks of potential explosion and fire.

The Northwest is seismically active. Every 200 to 1,000 years, a massive earthquake as strong as a magnitude 9 called “The Cascadia Event” has occurred off the Pacific Northwest coast. The last such earthquake was in 1700.

Whether such an earthquake could affect Eastern Washington is not well understood. We do know that disasters can cause cumulative impacts that are unanticipated, at least until they happen. In Japan, that involved a larger earthquake than anticipated, a tsunami and loss of power to the site. The same combination is obviously not going to happen at Hanford, but there are scenarios that could lead to similar results.

So what does this all mean for Washingtonians?

The first priority is for the Columbia Generating Station to remove all the older spent fuel it can from its spent-fuel pool, dry-cask that fuel and put it in an underground bunker for protection. This would significantly reduce the risk from a spent-fuel pool failure.

Another high priority is to remove the high-level nuclear waste from the decaying underground nuclear-waste tanks and treat that waste as soon as possible by immobilizing it in glass in a facility called the vitrification plant. Safety and design concerns have been raised by a senior manager who was removed from his position after raising these issues. The vitrification plant must not continue to be built or allowed to operate without independent oversight and a consensus that these concerns are adequately addressed.

Since we are years away from a treatment facility, the government needs to construct new tanks now as a backup plan for future tank failures at Hanford.

Some hard thinking is needed about whether the risks justify the continued operation or development of nuclear plants in the U.S. In Japan, the earthquake and tsunami were foreseeable, yet out of our control, therefore the reactors had built-in backup systems in the event of this kind of emergency. However, as we are seeing, preparing for a crisis and predicting what might happen can only take you so far.

Tom Carpenter is executive director of the Hanford Challenge.