Research Paper: Safety -- System Safety Failure

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Safety -- System Safety Failure -- Hanford Nuclear Site

The Hanford Nuclear Site's history closely follows the United States' involvement in the Nuclear Age. Charged with rapidly inventing a plutonium bomb during World War II, the Manhattan Project chose an area in southern Washington State due to that area's unique combination of abundance and deficiency. After a massive and troublesome 2-year construction project, Hanford Nuclear Site was operational and ably served the United States during World War II and throughout the Cold War. Unfortunately, system safety protocols failed the Site and surrounding environs due to: the exigencies of war; ignorance and carelessness; secrecy; the lack of centralized planning; and politics. These failures led to massive contamination of the air, water and soil by disposal of Hanford's multiple waste streams through burial, disbursal directly into the soil, release into the water and air, dumping in ponds and trenches and storage in underground tanks. Though Hanford met the standards of the 1940's through 1960's, greater knowledge led to rational alarm and outrage over the extent of contamination to resources including the Colorado River.

Though Hanford contaminated the environment in a variety of ways, the leaking underground tanks of the 200 Area have attracted the most attention. Consisting of 149 single-shell tanks and 28 double-shell tanks in 18 tank farms, more than 67 of those tanks have leaked radioactive waste and 6 of them, including a double-shell tank, are now actively leaking. Fortunately, several preventative measures can be taken to stop the leaking of nuclear waste: greater focus can be placed on finding solutions rather than preserving authority and saving money; sufficient processes, facilities and time must be spent on the problem; the process of "vitrification" can be used to neutralize the waste; and individuals/organizations dealing with the nuclear waste can learn from past mistakes by: taking the time, learning and dealing carefully with the waste; employing sufficient openness among scientists and with the public; and avoiding politics on all levels.

2. Introduction

The Hanford Site's history closely mirrors the United States' Nuclear Age. Constructed to create an atomic bomb during World War II, the Site continued to serve America's plutonium needs from the early 1940's through the late 1960's when the Cold War ended. Due to numerous system safety protocol failures, Hanford also succeeded in severely contaminating the air, soil and water, including the Colorado River, earning its notoriety as the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere. Hanford's underground storage tanks, which have garnered deserved concern due to dangerous leakage, can be better handled through preventative measures gleaned from both old and new approaches to the problem.

3. Body

a. History of Hanford Nuclear Site

The Hanford Nuclear Site was developed due to the United States' interest in uranium/plutonium research and eventual participation in World War II. In 1939, President Roosevelt established the Advisory Committee on Uranium, which authorized the Manhattan Project in 1942. The Manhattan Project was dedicated to top-secret development of the atomic bomb before Germany could develop it. Pursuant to that goal, the Manhattan Engineer District, the organization charged with successfully completing the Manhattan Project, established three secret "atomic cities," one of which was Hanford (Harvey, n.d., p. 7). Hanford's selection and development as an atomic city served both the war effort and the birth of the Nuclear Age.

The Hanford area's selection was a matter of considerable investigation. After nationwide review, an expanse of land in southern Washington State was deemed an ideal site for nuclear reactors and facilities for fuel management and chemical separation due to several qualities. The site on which Hanford was eventually built: was sufficiently large, with an area of 625 square miles; was remote, in that it was at least 20 miles from any population of 1,000 or more (Harvey, n.d., pp. 8-10); was near a large water supply, due the facts that the Columbia River runs through more than 50 miles of the site and "forms much of its eastern border" (Lichtenstein, 2004, p. 4); had adequate hydroelectric power due to the Bonneville Power Administration's constant power reserves and the high voltage wire running between the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams; was accessible to railroads and highways; was relatively flat; was near fuel supplies; provided natural resources for the production of concrete, in that it was an arid area with a large expanse of sandy desert; was far enough inland to safeguard it from seagoing enemy attack (Harvey, n.d., pp. 8-9); and it contained the right amount of "need and insolvency" of local farmers who could be easily expelled from their land (Brown, 2013, p. 17). The area's unique combination of abundance and deficiency made it compelling for construction of a wartime atomic city.

Due to the exigencies of war, Hanford became a complex, high-priority enterprise. After a massive and troublesome 2-year construction project employing approximately 45,000 construction workers who enjoyed "all the attractions of a minimum-security prison" (Brown, 2013, p. 25), Hanford became the site of 8 reactors, including the B, D and F. reactors, and the TU and B. separation plants. The Hanford site eventually developed to include major processing areas called: 100 Areas, containing the reactors and responsible for irradiation; 200 Area, containing separation plants and responsible for extraction, purification, isolation, storage and shipment of the plutonium; the 300 Area, containing plants such as the 313 Metal Fuels Fabrication Building and the 314 Metal Extrusion Building, and laboratories for "processing improvement and fuel fabrication"; and the 600 Area, consisting of a transportation network of roads, railroads and related equipment to serve all other Hanford areas (Harvey, n.d., pp. 11, 15-17, 26, 38). The expansive complexity and concentration of resources for the construction of the Hanford reflected its perceived importance in the war effort.

In at least some respects, Hanford served the interests of the United States. During World War II, Hanford produced plutonium for the world's first nuclear bomb, the Trinity atomic test and "Fat Man," the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan. After World War II, Hanford remained an important source of plutonium, research and development of more efficient and cost-effective modes of producing greater amounts of plutonium. These functions greatly increased in importance for the United States' Cold War with the U.S.S.R. until 1989, when the Cold War ended and Hanford closed. Hanford was constantly subject to all-encompassing security regulations, which relaxed or toughened depending on national security concerns (Harvey, n.d., pp. 16-17, 24, 34). Throughout the life of the Site, Hanford ably served as a plutonium workhorse for the U.S. government.

b. Problems of System Safety Protocols

System Safety Protocols failed Hanford in a variety of ways, explored here in no particular order of importance and occasionally overlapping. First, the exigencies of war certainly caused some failures: in the United States' feverish determination to beat Germany in developing the bomb, Hanford's first reactor and reprocessing plant were operating fewer than 2 years after Fermi and his team proved the possibility of a controlled nuclear chain reaction, when relatively little was known about this scientific sphere (Gephart, 2003, p. 6). Furthermore, due to the rush of war, "inadequate, stopgap measures" were used for waste disposal. Secondly, ignorance and carelessness about proper handling and disposal of radioactive materials were certainly factors in the failure of system safety protocols. Risks that the Hanford Site posed to the public health were monitored and otherwise managed according to "pre-Nuclear era" knowledge, despite experts' growing realization of the "vast chasm of unknowability about the unintended consequences of radioactive contamination" (Brown, 2013, pp. 165-168). Consequently, prior to 1970, burying waste without adequately characterizing or sorting it was acceptable practice (Gephart, 2003, p. 11). In addition, Hanford's buffer zone regarding toxic gases was set according scientific belief that gases would disperse uniformly and would decrease as they moved outward from the source; however, scientists actually found that they could not predict where the gases would go or where they would set down once they were released (Brown, 2013, p. 249). Third, secrecy failed Hanford: J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the acknowledged fathers of the atomic bomb, stated that the secrecy surrounding "the fact that we do not know how to do some things" prevented the insight, ideas and progress that could have come from a far broader base of individuals (Stenehjem Gerber & Findlay, 2007, p. 215). Consequently, the ignorance and carelessness of using and disposing of radioactive materials could not gain from the scrutiny of additional minds, scientific and otherwise. Furthermore, for the sake of "morale," the local citizenry and the Hanson plant workers were not advised about the seriousness of exposures to Hanford's emissions, even by the lax standards of the 1940's and onward. Fourth, the lack of centralized planning and management failed Hanford: when environmental concerns made the public question prior practices at Hanford, the questioners were amazed to discover that there had been no centralized plan for waste disposal and no office established to oversee waste disposal: officials left the task up to contractors, who then left the task… [END OF PREVIEW]

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