The Seattle Times Web Edition: 50 Years from Trinity

Part 3: Hanford Site, Washington

IMAGE: Looking down into a well-like nuclear core. The bottom is dotted with blue and white glowing lights.
The nuclear fuel core at the WPPSS No. 2 reactor glows blue from Cherenkov radiation. This view is from a movable bridge directly over the water-covered reactor pool. At left a shiny tube descends toward the core to move a fuel rod.

STANDING ON A BRIDGE over the reactor pool of Washington's only operating nuclear-power plant, I peer downward through 16 feet of crystalline water to the reactor core, its heat damped by insertion of boron control rods so that some of its fuel can be replaced.
   The water is all that shields us from the lingering Cherenkov radiation (named for the Soviet physicist who first observed it) of the fuel rods, a radiation that glows an unearthly, hypnotically beautiful blue.
   We are swathed in coveralls, hood, booties and two layers of gloves, the joints in our clothing temporarily sealed with masking tape. Multiple radiation detectors are slung on a plastic cord around our neck. Yet our faces are exposed.
IMAGE: WPPSS No. 2, Richland, WA    Our real protection is the water, which works like a solid barrier to absorb radiation and shield maintenance workers from exposure.
   Plant manager John Swailes, a former submarine officer, tries to lend reassurance by saying he'd feel safe swimming across the surface of the reactor pool. If he dived deep toward the cluster of control rods, however, he'd likely pick up enough radiation to kill himself.
   We watch as technicians use a robot arm to lift depleted fuel rods from the reactor core and shift them, always keeping them underwater, to an adjacent storage pool. Then fresh rods are carried in.
   The work is slow, careful and methodical, verified with prepared lists and overseen by an inspector from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Plant personnel are on notice. Just weeks before, three longtime senior plant workers were dismissed for trying to shortcut established procedures. "There's a lot of stress in this business," remarked Swailes, who had to fire his friends.
   In return for the scrutiny, key operators in the control room at the Washington Public Power Supply System plant can earn airline-pilot-level salaries: from $80,000 to $110,000 a year.

THIS REFUELING GOES ON every spring, when river levels are high, dam turbines are spinning out power and the nuclear plant isn't needed.
   The frequent refueling is costly, however - managers are studying whether it could be postponed to every other year - and illustrates why commercial nuclear power has never fulfilled its early promise.
   There are 109 U.S. nuclear-power plants, more than in any other country. Their share of the nation's electricity load has increased from 4 percent in 1973, when the Arab oil embargo hit, to 22 percent now. At the same time, no U.S. utility has ordered a nuclear plant since 1978 -- the year before the disaster at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania -- and the one generator at Hanford is struggling to remain cost-competitive in the Pacific Northwest.
   With coal and natural gas plentiful, 20 older American nuclear plants have shut down.
   Nuclear-power plants are not as efficient as they theoretically could be. Nuclear submarines, for example, can cruise 10 years before having to refuel because their fuel rods contain up to 98 percent enriched uranium. This level of enrichment makes the rods dangerous and a source of potential bomb material, so the commercial industry uses fuel rods with only 2 percent to 4 percent enriched uranium.
IMAGE: WPSSS control room during refueling    This forces frequent refueling, and through 1993, the WPPSS plant was operating only 58 percent of the time. That has recently been boosted to 75 percent as managers press for the efficiencies necessary to keep the plant financially competitive.
   Refueling delays are just one of the practical drawbacks of nuclear power. So is the sheer complexity of a nuclear plant: The unfinished Satsop plant in Grays Harbor County has 90 miles of piping and 1,300 miles of electrical cable. The Hanford plant requires 1,300 people to run, plus hundreds more for quick maintenance when the reactor is shut down. Dangers aside, nuclear power has turned out to be complicated and cantankerous.
   "Nuclear energy is a tough sell in this country," admitted James Lewis, the Bonneville Power Administration's liaison with WPPSS. "There's no question it's a technical challenge. It needs careful handling."
   Yet Lewis remains a supporter. "Yes, there is high-level waste. But I have no problem storing it at individual plants; it's such a contained amount. There are no greenhouse gases. Environmentally, I think it is still the way to go."

THE EARLY PROMISE was tantalizing. Even as the shadow of the hydrogen bomb seemed to envelop the world's future in 1954, the peaceful uses of atomic energy were being promoted as the brightest spot in our brave, new technological future.
   "It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter," Atomic Energy Chairman Lewis Strauss forecast that year. After all, 2.2 pounds of plutonium gave off energy equal to 34 million pounds of TNT. If atomic energy could be harnessed for power, energy availability seemed boundless.
   Today the U.S. nuclear industry is at a standstill, "killed," in the words of sympathetic author Richard Rhodes "not by its enemies but by its friends." Mismanagement left nuclear power uncompetitive in today's power market: a combination of a lack of standardized design, poor control of construction costs, rapidly changing regulation, soaring interest rates and inability to open a reasonably priced national underground waste depository.
   "Had nuclear power been able to contain its costs," said Lewis, "it wouldn't have faced as much severe opposition from the public."
   Nowhere are the ruins of America's nuclear-power-plant program more dramatic than in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon's 1,100-megawatt Trojan plant at St. Helens on the Columbia River, that state's biggest energy source when it opened in 1976 (it produced enough power for 500,000 homes), was shut down in 1992 after less than half its intended operational life. Soaring maintenance costs, citizen criticism and a statewide vote in 1981 to ban future nuclear plants in Oregon led Portland General Electric to get out early.
   "It did not perform as well as we wanted it to perform," noted PGE spokesman David Heintzman. The plant operated only 54 percent of the time because of the need to refuel and make repairs. Steam generator tubes cracked and leaked radioactive water. Faced with a choice of installing new generators or switching to natural gas, the utility chose the latter, estimating it saved $100 million by walking away from Trojan.
   The Trojan plant cost only $500 million when it was built in the early 1970s but will cost at least $410 million, in 1993 dollars, to take apart, a project extending more than a decade into the future.
IMAGE: Unfinished Satsop plant    Washington has the region's only remaining operating nuclear plant, WPPSS' $3.3 billion No. 2 reactor in Richland. Four others, started in the 1970s in the most ambitious nuclear construction program in the nation, have been abandoned. One of them at Hanford was two-thirds complete; one at Satsop was 75 percent done.
   The plants that were half-built will be slowly demolished over the next decade, demolition at Satsop starting early next year.
   The sheer magnitude of nuclear-power miscalculation is difficult to grasp unless one walks through the abandoned plants: reactors that will never fire, turbines that will never run, control-panel dials that will never twitch, trays of cable that will never carry electricity. Cooling towers as high as a 50-story building and two-thirds the width of the Kingdome. All to be sold off, dismantled or dynamited.
   "I'm embarrassed by the failure of nuclear power in the Pacific Northwest," said Michael Louisell, spokesman for the abandoned WPPSS No. 3 plant in Satsop. "It's a good way to get electricity. We were a small agency, and we got overwhelmed."
   The pain of terminating No. 3, at 75 percent completion, is evident: It was the showcase plant with the fewest problems and most rapid construction. "If WPPSS 3 had been finished, it would have been the best nuclear plant in the country," Swailes said.
   Other nations have had happier experiences with nuclear power. France relies on it for 70 percent of its electricity, and Japan for 27 percent. Both nations use standardized designs instead of allowing each utility to go its own way. Both stress the need for a high level of operation and meticulous maintenance. Both plan to reprocess, or reuse, their used fuel rods, lessening their radioactive-waste problem at the cost of producing more surplus plutonium that could be turned into bombs.
   The United States has been wrestling for nearly two decades with where to put nuclear-plant waste for long-term storage.

THE GOOD NEWS about radioactive waste is that it decays naturally into harmless byproducts; about 90 percent of the radioactivity in the most dangerous defense wastes now stored in tanks decays away in the first 100 years. The bad news is that some isotopes decay very, very slowly.
   The Environmental Protection Agency has concluded it will take roughly 10,000 years for commercial-power-plant waste to decay to a background radiation level equivalent to a natural deposit of uranium.
   Ideas for handling waste have ranged from using rockets to fire it into the sun to burying in it the abyss of the ocean. But the U.S. approach has been to find a stable, underground depository where casks of waste turned into glass could sit for milleniums, for a while reaching temperatures of 300 degrees.
IMAGE: Yucca Mountain nuclear waste tunnel    After several sites were examined, including Hanford, Congress in 1987 narrowed the search to one: Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The decision was widely interpreted more as a comment on the political weakness of the sparsely populated state than confidence in its geology.
   "Yucca Mountain was done by a purely political process that ignored science," said Bob Schaefer, a spokesman for the Military Production Network, a peace group. "It was a `bleep' Nevada bill."
   Nevada was so furious that at one point the state cut off water to the Yucca Mountain site, forcing managers to truck supplies from California until a court order lifted the ban.
   Yucca Mountain is a 5,000-foot-high desert ridge of volcanic origin that gets only 6 inches of rain a year. Its water table sits beneath where the waste storage tunnels would be, and its "welded tuff" rock of former volcanic ash is tougher than concrete. Moreover, it is remote: Even if waste somehow broke loose and started migrating through the soil, the nearest large city - Las Vegas - is 100 miles away. The tentative plan was to store 7,000 tons of radioactive waste and then backfill the tunnels to prevent access to it.
IMAGE: Geologist John Peck on Yucca Mtn.    Unfortunately, Yucca Mountain is in a geologically active area. There are three faults in the area where tunnels would be drilled and 33 more in the surrounding ridge. Seven cinder cones, some of which erupted as recently as 20,000 years ago, are within 10 miles. Just 12 miles away, an earthquake measuring magnitude 5.6 occurred June 19, 1992.
   The Department of Energy has hired 900 workers to dig a 5-mile-long tunnel loop through the mountain with a $13.2 million, 720-ton boring machine built in Kent. The tunnel, now 1,700 feet long, will be used by geologists to examine the mountain's interior in detail and test for water leakage, earthquake dangers and so on.
   "This is the most broad application of geologic science to solve a problem anywhere in the world," said John Peck, a geologist and spokesman.
   The federal government has spent $1.7 billion on Yucca Mountain. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to cancel the project and the Senate to put it on hold, raising the possibility of surface storage at alternate sites such as the Nevada Test Site or Hanford.

THE QUESTION of nuclear-waste storage tends to create odd enemies and allies.
   Anti-nuclear activists tend to be skeptical, not only because of the remote chance of leakage but because a depository could be perceived by the public as a solution to the waste problem, allowing nuclear-power-plant construction to start up again.
   Some nuclear enthusiasts believe there could be uses for waste fuel rods and that burying it is premature.
   No state wants the stuff, and moving fuel rods from the water pools where they continue to cool next to each nuclear plant raises concerns about transport.
   A good argument could be made to simply wait. Certainly that seems to be the public mood.
   A recent nuclear-industry poll showed 14 percent of Americans think more nuclear-power plants should be built, 16 percent said they should never be built and 64 percent said "don't build now but keep the option open."
   This hesitation may be typical of our ambivalent attitudes toward the perils and promises of nuclear energy. After World War II, physicist Robert Oppenheimer tried to sum up for audiences the thoughts scientists had as they unleashed the nuclear age.
   "When (the atomic bomb) went off, in the New Mexico dawn," he recounted, "we thought of Alfred Nobel and his hope, his vain hope, that dynamite would put an end to wars. We thought of the legend of Prometheus, of that deep sense of guilt in man's new powers, that reflects his recognition of evil, and his long knowledge of it. We knew that it was a new world, but even more we knew that novelty itself was a very old thing in human life, that all our ways are rooted in it."
    Accordingly, the physicist sought hope in this eternal human quest for the new and the powerful.
IMAGE: School children by Yucca Mtn. mural    "It did not take atomic weapons to make war terrible," Oppenheimer said in 1946. "It did not take atomic weapons to make man want peace, a peace that would last. But the atomic bomb was the turn of the screw. It has made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country."
   Is there a different country? Have we been feeling our way into its frontiers in these past 50 years since Trinity? Has it opened up just since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union?
   Or has the new Prometheus equipped us with the bombs and waste of inevitable self-destruction?
   Even plain-spoken Harry Truman didn't have an answer to that one.
   "I fear," the president confided in his diary, "that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries and when morals catch up perhaps there'll be no reason for any of it. I hope not. But we are only termites on a planet and maybe when we bore too deeply into the planet there'll be a reckoning.
   "Who knows?"

Continue to related articles

[Trinity stories | Deeper into things | Interactive activities | Internet links | Seattle Times | Up a level]

Copyright, 1995, Seattle Times Company