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Originally published Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 5:08 PM

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Guest: Unwarranted fear of Hanford’s leaking radioactive waste tanks

The threat to human health from the leaking radioactive waste tanks at Hanford have been vastly overstated, writes guest columnist John Robinson.

Special to The Times

No comments have been posted to this article.


I AM dismayed and angered by the proliferation of gross misrepresentations of the potential threat to human health presented by leaks from the waste tanks at Hanford.

Public statements by some high-ranking federal and state officials about the recent leak from the AY-102 tank have led citizens, not only locally but across the nation, to experience unwarranted fears — some bordering on hysteria. A lady friend from North Carolina called me asking what is being done to prevent a catastrophe.

In an article entitled “The Plutonium Gang,” which appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, we find this: “The DOE [Department of Energy] recently identified six more tanks that have sprung leaks, further threatening water supplies for millions across the Northwest.” I wrote the magazine challenging that egregious assertion.

Such irresponsible statements are not supported by any credible studies. Whether or not those statements are born of ignorance or to support an ideological position, they should stop.

During my 13 years at Battelle’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, I managed the development of nine Department of Energy Environmental Impact Statements relating to Hanford operations, including the disposal of the radioactive waste in the underground tanks.

The last Environmental Impact Statement contains an analysis of the effect on the city of Richland’s drinking-water system if all of the so-called most dangerous radionuclides in the tanks were to leak to the soil.

To be conservative, the Richland water system was chosen since it is the first municipal withdrawal from the Columbia River for drinking water purposes downstream of Hanford. The study concluded that the contamination would be below the Environmental Protection Agency’s stringent drinking-water standards.

This was due in part to the fact that some of the radionuclides were absorbed by the soil, and principally by the tremendous mixing caused by the flow of the Columbia River.

Around 1987, I also had the staff conduct a related study, which assumed that all 50 million to 60 million gallons of waste in the tanks were released to the ground. The objective was to model on a computer the plume of radioactive waste as it slowly migrated through the 200 to 300 feet of soil to the underlying aquifer, then to the Columbia River, and finally to the intake pipes for the drinking water system for Richland.

The experts involved in the study included experienced, well-established scientists and engineers in the fields of soil chemistry, computer modeling, hydrology, health physics and nuclear radiation decay.

I asked each of these experts to be conservative in his or her modeling of the radioactive plume. That is, wherever there was a range of values for estimating the amount of radionuclides remaining in the plume, they should choose the highest values.

The study found that the leading edge of the plume did not arrive at the aquifer until 30 to 50 years after being released from the tanks. As in the case of the study reported in the Environmental Impact Statement mentioned above, the concentrations of various radionuclides that entered the Richland drinking water system fell below the EPA’s drinking-water standards — again, due principally to mixing in the Columbia River.

Permission by the DOE’s Richland Operations Office to publish the report was denied on the basis of its belief that the public would not believe the results.

Government officials and members of the mass media have an obligation to know whether we citizens should seriously be alarmed about health risks associated with Hanford tank leaks.

Unless they have verifiable evidence that says we should, I strongly urge them to spend their time and energy, and our hard-earned tax dollars exhorting the DOE to get the vitrification plant operating so the waste can finally be disposed.

John Robinson, a nuclear physicist, is co-author of “Understanding Radioactive Waste,” a consultant on nuclear power, a patent holder and an Academic Fellow of the Magis Institute.

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