We all know that the Manhattan Project built the nuclear bombs Little Boy — dropped on Hiroshima — and Fat Man — dropped on Nagasaki. Terrible times. But not many Australians know that Hanford Site was one of 30 sites involved in the Manhattan Project. It was the primary production site for the uranium and plutonium that went into Little Boy and Fat Man.
And it’s a mess! The government’s war-time urgency to build the bomb cost America something like $24 billion (in today’s money). But the way they left nuclear waste in rusty steel cans will cost them far, far more! Whatever that final figure is, it is going to cost an awful lot of money to clean up. The Hanford leaks are notorious, but I’m wondering how over-sensationalised? What Sieverts are people really taking on there? When the government says “State and federal officials have long said leaking tanks at Hanford do not pose an immediate threat to the environment or public health.”, I’m actually inclined to believe them for once. Because people over-react. The word ‘radiation’ drives FUD like nothing else, and people forget to ask something basic, like how much? Just going on a bushwalk and sitting on granite rocks can give you some micro-Sieverts. Is that bad? How much radiation is there in everything anyway? What about eating a banana? The reality is hardly anyone in the general population knows these things. They just hear ‘radioactive’ and wonder if they’re about to explode, or if Godzilla is about to come crashing through their lounge-rooms.
But Hanford does have a lot of nasty stuff lying around in an unsafe manner. Left there by the military, not peaceful civilian power. It’s leaking. And it is going to cost a lot of money to fix.
Shouldn’t we try to get some money back? If we can use chemical or ion-exchange processes to separate out all this stuff, why not at least get something back by feeding this ‘waste’ into various breeder reactors? Both the Integral Fast Reactor and Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors ‘eat’ nuclear wastes like these. It seems like a lot of money to throw at a problem without getting something good back in return. It seems like there’s a lot of fuel there. If we can isolate it, refine it, and get it up to speed, I’m guessing there could be decades, even centuries of clean power for the Hanford area to retrieve from this polluted site?
It sort of reminds me of the Megatons to Magawatts program that powered 10% of America’s grid for about 20 years on old Soviet warheads. Imagine that! That’s equivalent to powering the whole of Australia off the Cold War for 20 years!
Sometimes the right technology can turn something bad into something good. If anything, Hanford is an economic incentive to build IFR’s and LFTR’s. They should separate out any ‘radioactive goodies’ for fuel, and vitrify the real waste products. After breeding the waste in the reactors for decades, there are some very radioactive elements left behind. This is the real waste. Fortunately, waste from a breeder reactor is so ‘hot’ it burns itself out in just 300 years. As part of a modern commercial nuclear power program, this waste will be disposed of properly. Stored. Contained. Vitrified even. Then, 300 years later your great-great etc grandchildren can play with it if they want to! ;-)