The Next Missoula Flood

will be radioactive due to Hanford radwaste

The next Missoula Flood will be radioactive if Hanford is not detoxified.

The most toxic site in the northwest is the Department of Energy’s Hanford Reservation in eastern Washington. (It is likely that the only nuclear sites on Earth more contaminated than Hanford are in the former Soviet Union.) Hanford was built make plutonium for the “Manhattan Project,” and at its peak, had nine nuclear production reactors in operation (the earliest discharged reactor coolant into the Columbia River). The last nuclear weapons material production reactor was shut down shortly after the 1986 Chernobyl explosion in Ukraine (the N-reactor at Hanford was the only US reactor that had graphite “moderators” like the Chernobyl design). Hanford is no longer making nuclear materials, and the government is trying to figure out how to deal with the mess made from four decades of bomb production, including radioactive groundwater under the region.

Currently, a civilian nuclear power reactor is in operation at Hanford, and its electricity is sold to utilities by BPA along with the hydropower from the Columbia River dams.

Hanford is already a de facto national nuclear repository, although none of the waste in the “tank farm” nor in any other form is stabilized for multigenerational storage. Some of Hanford’s waste will only be dangerous for a few centuries, but other components will be toxic for periods longer than the human race has walked on the Earth. Plutonium-239, which was made by the ton at Hanford, has a “half life” of about 24 thousand years, and since it takes 20 half lives for a radioactive isotope to decay to one-millionth its original amount, plutonium will be dangerous for about a half million years.

The Hanford nuke dump was built on the gravels deposited by the Missoula floods -- the Ice Age floods that are the largest known to have happened on Earth. (The existence of the Missoula Floods was not yet accepted as fact by geologists when the Hanford site was selected for bomb making.) We need to detoxify or somehow convert the very long lived wastes to shorter lived wastes while we still have the energy, money and technical talent to address the problems. Otherwise, the next Ice Age, whenever that happens, will result in a Missoula Flood that will break open the waste tanks and cover the Columbia Gorge and the Willamette Valley with high level nuclear waste