By Yoichi Shimatsu
The radioactive particles billowing out of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant caught the officers and crew of the USS Ronald Reagan unawares. The gargantuan vessel is equipped with radiation sensors that can identify the spectrum of isotopes from civilian accidents up to all-out nuclear warfare. Although the vessel was cruising at a presumably safe 80 nautical miles from the meltdowns, the shipboard alarms started to buzz wildly.
Carrier Row, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, where
the Fukushima-contaminated USS Ronald Reagan
was refitted over an 18-month period.
Reconnaissance helicopters roared back to the mother ship, which then carved an arc through the chill waters of the Liman Current. The pride of the U.S. Navy was fleeing the coast of Japan like a wounded whale from a shiver of hungry sharks.
The USS Reagan’s support role for Operation Tomodachi sustained far more injuries than any of the 9th Carrier Group’s exercises off the Korean Peninsula. The crews of three helicopter suffered high exposure levels, and sailors operating the ventilation controls have since come down with severe radiation-related symptoms.
A railroad bridge crossing the Columbia River was traversed by
the train that transported radioactive waste from the
USS Ronald Reagan to the Hanford Site.
Fukushima radiation seeped beyond soft tissue into hard steel. Below the flight deck, nuclear isotopes in the air flowed into the air vents and below-deck ducts, while radioactive seawater surged through its turbine pumps and tubes that suck in seawater for the desalination system and to cool the vessel’s twin nuclear-power reactors. The artificially produced freshwater for washing and drinking aboard ship was soon toxic.
The detection of war-grade plutonium residues sparked rumors of a nuclear strike on Fukushima in undeclared war by an unidentified power. Meanwhile a blanket of censorship was imposed over the condition and whereabouts of the USS Ronald Reagan, which at that moment could have possibly been the first casualty of World War III. Not until months later did confidential leaks emerge from U.S. nonproliferation experts disclosing secret transfers of highly enriched plutonium from Texas blended into mixed-oxide fuel rods for Fukushima Reactors 3 and 4.
Wanapum Hydropower Dam, 30 miles upstream from Hanford,
was mysteriously dusted with radioactive isotopes
Over the two years since the March 2011 meltdowns, the radiation-stricken carrier vanished from the sailing schedule, leaving other naval behemoths to take over its missions in the South China Sea, Gulf of Aden, the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Then this spring, the vessel reappeared in San Diego as if nothing had happened.
Casey Jones, Watch Your Speed
The story behind the USS Ronald Reagan’s long absence from active duty was revealed by a Navy long-timer perched at a bar outside the Bremerton Naval Shipyard in Seattle.
A guard post at Hanford Site keeps out uninvited visitors.
After flushing its pipes while transporting sailors’ cars to Alaska, the carrier was docked for decontamination and refitting along Bremerton’s “Carrier Row”. From early autumn 2011 until mid-March 2013, a period of 18 months, shipyard workers replaced irradiated air ducts, pumps, pipes, gaskets, hoses and electronic controls sensitive to radiation. The work gangs were ordered to prevent release of any contaminated liquid into Puget Sound in compliance with a prior Environmental Agency pollution complaint issued in 2010.
(My dosimeter readings at Bremerton and at several points in Puget Sound confirmed the absence of radiation leakage from the USS Reagan. Frequent sightings of dead Dungeness crabs with floppy legs, however, suggested mortality caused by chemical toxins, probably surfactants used for cleaning the carrier and possibly heavy-metal compounds, possibly chrome, to deter barnacles from the hull.)
A backhoe and steel ring are hauled to Hanford’s leaking 200 storage tank area.
The vast pile of radioactive scrap and barrels of liquid waste were then loaded onto a freight train that rumbled out of the shipyard to a final resting place. Its destination was and still is undisclosed to the news media, the public and state officials. The terminus of that old rail track, say the shipyard workers, is Hanford Site.
Mapping the Terrain
Moral outrage at the disposal of the military’s radioactive hardware in a Department of Energy (DOE) facility supposedly under decommissioning was pushed to the back of my mind by the astonishing natural beauty of the Cascade Range. The four-hour drive from Seattle to Hanford offers a first-hand study in ecology. The lacework of inlets and rocky islands of Puget Sound was carved by glaciers during the Ice Age, when the sea was much lower. Those rivers of ice originated in the Cascades, a sawtooth chain of basalt pillars, remnants of ancient volcanoes. Its ridgeline divides Washington State into two major eco-zones, the temperate rainforest of the Pacific coast and, on the leeward side, arid lands stretching toward the Rockies.
A bulldozer starts to excavate a trench for the military’s nuclear
waste. Earlier burial sites can be seen in the background.
The eastern slope of the watershed creates hundreds of streams that merge into the Columbia River, which quenches apple orchards and the green pastures for Angus cattle, dairy cows and bison. The mighty current is slowed by a series of hydropower dams before hitting its lower reaches at Portland, Oregon.
Under a high bluff at Wanapum Dam, about 30 miles northwest of Hanford, my dosimeter readings climbed to 0.16 microsieverts. Downstream, the findings were much lower. When the air is bone-dry, how can evaporated wastewater from leaking tanks at Hanford move so far upstream against the prevailing wind? Why are there no traces of its passage up the gorge? I take mental note of this baffling riddle before moving on.
A plutonium processing reactor
Endless flows of water and hydropower are the necessary utilities for the production of nuclear weapons, and the Columbia provides these in abundance to Hanford Site, founded in 1943 under the Manhattan Project. Ringed by rosy red hills peppered with fingers of black basalt and clumps of sage, the first impression of Hanford basin is one of awe at Nature’s raw power rather than fear of a grim manmade Mordor. Technology’s supreme force shrinks against such grandeur; its fabrications scattered like the Mad Hatter’s overturned teacups and sugar cubes alongside the Columbia.
Yet one of those fly specks down there, inside the facility’s 586 square miles (1,517 sq. km) area, is the world’s first plutonium-production reactor. Hanford 100B provided the implosive force for the Trinity test blast and for Fat Man, the hydrogen bomb that annihilated Nagasaki in August 1945. Nagasaki, so much like Puget Sound, with its cathedral, shipyards, parks, saloons and Victorian era facades . . . vanished like dream in a flash of blinding light.
To the right of the power line is a 100 series reactor.
After passing under its rusty bridges in the hills, here on dry pale ground, I spot the railroad track pointing toward the 200 West Area. On lonesome roads outside and inside the vast facility, long-bed trucks haul yellow bulldozers and back hoes, the grave diggers for dead machines. The earth-movers are fitted with glass-enclosed air-filtered cabins, the thinnest of protective shields for the drivers.
In rows of trenches inside that dusty tract are the guts of the USS Ronald Reagan along with the nuclear reactors from 117 decommissioned submarines. The reactor cores are left uncovered so that Russian satellites can verify reductions in America’s strategic arsenal. A retired nuclear-plant operator explains how those reactor cores, too heavy and bulky for the train, are instead transported by barge up the Columbia River. At Port Benson, adjoining Hanford Site, the load is rolled aboard a land carrier with 16-wheel axles and hauled at 5 miles per hour to the nuclear graveyard.
The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton is the only facility that dismantles America’s fleet of aging nuclear submarines. The fuel from the scrapped reactors is sent by rail to a federal storage facility near Idaho Falls. Little is known about the movements of naval cargo because several maritime lanes in Puget Sound are protected by armed guards on speed boats, Navy SEAL divers prowling underwater and surveillance dolphins equipped with electronic sensors and GPS tracking devices. Fishermen, clam diggers and recreational sailors know better than to mess with this security force.
There is no legal mandate to inform Washington State communities of passing reactor-toting barges because the Navy designates the cargo as “low level” waste. Local residents who are curious about these shipments will not find the route map posted at their docks or bridges, so here it is, courtesy of the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility:
“The route begins at the (Bremerton) Shipyard and goes though Rich Passage, past Restoration Point, and northerly though Puget Sound. The barge will then move west through the Strait of Juan De Fuca, past Cape Flattery, before turning south and going along the Washington Coast. As the barge makes its way to the mouth of the Columbia River it will not enter the area near the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary known as the Area to Be Avoided.
The barge will then go up the Columbia River following the regular shipping channel that is used for commercial cargo. The ocean tugs turn over the barge to river tugs on the lower Columbia. The river route passes through the navigation locks at the Bonneville, Dalles, John Day, and McCanry dams, until finally reaching the Port of Benton. “
Portlanders are hereby informed that radiation is coming and going, upstream and downstream. It’s been happening since 1986 and will continue indefinitely.
A point of light is flickering from inside one of the older thermal power plants. Next to a No Entry sign, my travel party passes a pair of binoculars for a closer look. It is not sunlight reflected off a window pane. Incredibly, there’s a massive fire blazing inside the nuclear plant. Flames are blowing out of the open door, which is at least two stories tall and wide enough for several trucks. No black smoke is being emitted, nor do the flames diminish in intensity. Alarms are not blaring and there are no firefighting sirens. Therefore, it must be a gas fire, deliberately set.
The sight of a structure’s innards on fire is dumbfounding. Nothing about this sort of incident has ever been reported in Hanford press releases. What could DOE be up to? Surfacing in my mind’s eye is a flashback of the dosimeter reading at the Wanapum hydropower dam. Hanford is being decommissioned, and the fastest way to clean out a thermal power plant used in the past to incinerate nuclear waste is to torch it. The invisible hot fumes lift the radioactive particles hundreds of meters into the desert sky, and then at nighttime an updraft carries the airborne waste up the Columbia gorge to Wanapum and beyond. Thus, the radioactive residues disappear as if by magic, and the monitors, inspectors and visitors remain none the wiser.
Atmospheric releases blowing out of Hanford are swirling up and down the Columbia gorge, unbeknownst to ranchers, apple growers, restaurant operators, school teachers and truckers along the riverbanks. Nobody on the outside is being warned of the threat. This is still the Wild West, where an outlaw gang like the DOE can kill everyone and anything that stands in their way.
Above the Aquifer
For plant workers, the most fearsome piece of equipment inside plutonium-processing and warhead-production facilities is the glove-box. Since the more delicate operations must be done by hand, glove-boxes have a window and fitted with a pair of holes for insertion from fingers to elbow. In both Fukushima and Hanford, the best way to test exposure levels in nuclear workers is to measure castoff gloves. At a roadside spot convenient for quick relief, a black work glove was lying on the gravel. It registered 0.28 microsieverts, meaning whoever urinated is a dead man walking.
By the 1960s, waste disposal became a major problem at Hanford due to the expanding number of 100 series reactors, along with plutonium processing centers and a power generation plant. Initially, the DOE planned to drill long-term storage caverns into Gable Mountain, a saddle-shaped mound of basalt on the plant’s north side between the Columbia River reactors and the plutonium-enrichment facilities.
The warning sign is posted at a waste disposal site adjoining a fast-flowing drainage ditch.
Geologists, working on the environmental feasibility report, found that Hanford Site sits atop the Pasco Aquifer, the source of well water for towns, ranches and fruit farms inside the big bulge of the Columbia. This discovery prompted the 1978 DOE study of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent repository of nuclear waste, but the proposed site was later abandoned due to political opposition from nearby Las Vegas interests.
The termination of Yucca Mountain led to an untenable situation at the 200 East Tank Farm. There, 177 rusted-out single- and double-shelled tanks “are far gone, past their 20-year lifetime,” said the plant operator. Tritium has been leaking onto the ground and in the air. A greater problem is that solid particles of plutonium and other radioactive elements are settling to the bottom of the wastewater tanks. When atoms are in close proximity, the release of neutrons from radioactive decay can result in a chain reaction.
DOE engineers are anxious about the possibility of an explosive chain reaction at the tank farm similar to the tritium blast that wrecking Fukushima’s Reactor 3. Tritium and deuterium, also known as heavy water, along with hydrogen gas, could blow the tanks apart, sending radioactive steam into the clouds. A much greater threat, said the plant insider, is a downward blast into the Pasco Aquifer, sending ripples of death through hundreds of miles of drinking water for local residents. Leakage from ruptured tanks into the Columbia would doom downstream communities, including Portland and its Silicon Forest industrial parks, anchored by Intel.
Grape vines are planted across the river from Hanford’s nuclear power complex.
To prevent this doomsday scenario, the DOE contracted the Bechtel engineering company to design as unmanned mixing system to prevent the precipitation of plutonium from the wastewater. The controversial design for the vitrification plant uses jet pulses through tubes, called turkey basters, to repeatedly remix the radioactive soup, keeping the radioactive particles in permanent suspension. The design is fraught with weak points that could easily burst under corrosion and high pressure. Cost overruns and construction delays have postponed completion from 2007 to 2022, which is probably much too late to head off a catastrophe.
DOE, the Pentagon and nuclear industry should admit the obvious: Hanford is broken and cannot be fixed. A radical alternative to storage at Hanford needs to be developed rapidly and a crash program will require vast sums of money and the political will to stop all nuclear operations from coast to coast. Permissiveness toward the nuclear industry is suicidal. A new energy policy must begin with zero tolerance for nuclear.
Grape vines are planted across the river from Hanford’s nuclear power complex.
Turn Out the Lights
The music’s over for the nuclear industry. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have savaged the myth of cheap and safe power from atom-splitting. Hanford takes this fiasco a step further by implicating the military in nuclear skullduggery. Despite its bloated defense budget, the Pentagon is misappropriating the fiscal resources of the DOE, which must dispose of nuclear-contaminated military hardware. Funds that could otherwise be allocated to replacing the storage tanks at Hanford are being spent on burying submarine reactors. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is facing a radioactive mess of waste, fraud and mismanagement.
A housing development reflects fatal problems in local zoning ordinances.
The ominous situation at the Hanford rust belt is the result of a false sense of national security. Nuclear weapons have been ineffective as an instrument for global stability since their inception. Nuclear deterrence has failed to prevent outbreaks of war and terrorism, and the Cold War would have ended sooner without warheads. Instead of preserving the peace, the nuclear arsenals of the major powers have only spurred on proliferation by minor regional players.
However fast or slow the pace of future nuclear drawdown, the problem of long-term storage remains a formidable challenge, now that Yucca Mountain is nixed. The search for a safe site for a nuclear-waste repository should have started yesterday. The federal government controls millions of acres in sites that have outlived their usefulness, for example, military zones like Fallon test range or Area 51. The Pentagon should use its own turf to store its waste instead of dumping on the hard-pressed DOE. The cost of the relocating naval reactors should be deducted from the inflated military budget and not from the shrinking pockets of taxpayers.
Ozone Loss Led to Climate Chaos
If the threat from Fukushima isn’t enough to bear, lethal radioactive releases from Hanford and San Onofre, along with Indian Point and the Napoleonville sinkhole, should motivate Americans to political action against the nuclear lobby and its sycophants. National security and, much more, the very existence of American society and the continent’s natural environment, are coming apart from the effects of high-energy particles in the jet stream, which cause ozone depletion over the Northern Hemisphere. The consequences include the recent tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma, and an epidemic of winter twisters, derecho storms, flooding and drought.
The ribs of a wild faun indicate dangerous radiation levels in coyotes.
The harmful influence of carbon dioxide on global weather, as exaggerated by supporters of TEPCO and the Tennessee Valley Authority, is a convenient ruse to divert attention and funding from the immediate task of shutting down nuclear power.
An end to nuclear tyranny is directly linked to the revival of genuine democracy. A sinister and cynical force within America’s political establishment, economic elite and scientific elect is desperately trying to prevent Americans from recovering this nation’s foundational values of civic duty, ethical responsibility and common sense.
Any physicist, engineer, bureaucrat, president or monarch who persists in uttering ultra-absurd nonsense in defense of nuclear power should be hauled away to a padded cell for deprogramming and decommissioning. If anything is going to be buried, it should be that deceiving pack of con artists and scoundrels.
With so many burned-out reactors and morally warped scoundrels to deal with, let’s hear what Nick Santoro (Joe Pesci) of Casino has to say: “A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried there. You gotta have the hole already dug before you show up with a package in the trunk. Otherwise, you’re talking about a half-hour to 45 minutes of digging. And who knows who’s gonna come along at that time? Pretty soon you gotta dig a few more holes. You could be there all fricking night.”
Quick Reads of the Technical Details
Cattle manure along the Hanford fence show extreme levels of radiation ingestion.
The Columbia River, once a life-giver for the Pacific Northwest, has become the bringer of death on an unimaginable scale. Testing of radiation levels in its waters is not being done by any government agency. My dosimeter readings at the Hanford and on the mid-reaches of the Columbia cannot be a substitute for a wider monitoring program, but they do point to the rising threat of nuclear contamination.
Even with scientific Geiger counters, the testing of water remains an elusive task.
Gamma rays are reflected in water, throwing off readings by as much as 20 times lower than the actual level of contamination. Thus, the only way for a layman to make estimates in the field is by measuring biological accumulation in plants and animals.
Dosimeter readings on the bluffs northwest of Hanford showed low levels, due to the prevailing wind and lack of airborne moisture.
At a riverine chokepoint on the north bend between Reactors D and H, a wide variation in readings, from 0.08 to 0.28 microsieverts, with the highest in sage, indicated different rates of water absorption by various species of flora.
A reactor of the 100 series is on the horizon behind the sign.
At points downriver, near the southern tip of Hanford, the measurements on different plant species ran consistently in the 0.28 range, equivalent to coastal areas inside the Fukushima exclusion area (9 km from the meltdowns). A ribcage from a faun devoured by coyotes showed remarkably high contamination, suggesting higher levels inside predators.
The high water from the spring snowmelt prevented access to underwater vegetation. The readings along the outer bank of the Columbia, however, indicate levels dangerous to downstream communities and coastal populations in northern Oregon.
Author: Yoichi Shimatsu is a Hong Kong-based science writer and environmental health consultant who provides herbal therapy to Fukushima residents.