Slowly Reclaiming A Radioactive Wasteland

"How much do you know about Hanford?" asks Mike Berriochoa, a burly former local radio personality who now works as "media-relations specialist" for Westinghouse Hanford Co., the contractor running the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state.

"Mainly what I've read in the newspapers," I respond.

"Well, we'll tell you the truth."

The truth about Hanford has been hard to get. For years, the federal government, which once produced plutonium for nuclear weapons at Hanford, and its contractors insisted the site posed no health threat. Even though about 60 million gallons of radioactive waste are buried in 177 tanks, the government assured the public that what little waste had leaked out hadn't reached the groundwater under the desert soil.

The people in nearby Richland, many of them workers and middle managers at Hanford, wanted to believe. They were proud of the role they had played in the massive nuclear-arms buildup that kept the peace for more than 40 years after Hanford's plutonium destroyed Nagasaki. They kept secrets well and obeyed the government, even when it meant the environment was contaminated.

But gradually, the public learned that the government in the 1950s and `60s routinely released radioactive materials into the Columbia River, fishing waters that also supply hundreds of farms. The river seemed so huge that it could take care of whatever it took in. But oysters several hundred miles away on the Washington coast soon had above-normal radioactive readings. And in 1986, Washington released 19,000 pages of documents that revealed, to those willing to ferret out the information, that radioactive iodine had been released into the air, especially in the 1940s--emissions that may have damaged the health of as many as 55,000 people downwind. Lawsuits filed against Westinghouse and previous contractors focus on cancer and thyroid ailments.

Then, last year, the government admitted that some of the tanks contain an explosive chemical, ferrocyanide, and that one tank, 101-SY, releases hydrogen every few months, posing the threat of an explosion that could contaminate some of Hanford's 14,600 workers, according to a worst-case analysis.

Now, attitudes are starting to change, but slowly. One Richland high-school team is still named the Bombers, its symbol a mushroom cloud, even though production of plutonium for bombs ended with the cold war. All nine of Hanford's reactors have been shut down. What remains is the herculean job of cleaning up America's worst nuclear dump.

At the beginning of my Hanford tour, I am issued a tag containing a dosimeter, a button that will measure my exposure to radioactivity. Berriochoa and an environmental chemist, Ron Lerch, take me to see two of the three Expedited Response Areas, the sites that Westinghouse is trying to clean up as soon as possible.

TOXIC DRUMS. One site is a patch of desert in which 100 drums holding an unknown amount of uranium-contaminated cleaning solvents have been buried. Then, we see two long trenches, not far from the river. Every day, 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water from research labs are poured into them, posing the threat of more nuclear waste getting into the river, Westinghouse admits.

After our car is searched by a guard, we tour B Plant, built in 1943 to extract plutonium and uranium. It has been refitted to play a major role in the cleanup, separating low-level-radioactive wastewater from highly radioactive waste. At a "grout facility," we see where the low-level waste will be mixed with cement to be buried in huge vaults. The high-level waste will eventually be "vitrified" into glass tubes for transportation to a final underground repository, possibly in Nevada.

It all seems very orderly, very secure. As we pass through a gate that measures us for radiation, a Westinghouse employee, born in Richland, turns to me: "If anything happened, we would be the first to be affected, and then our families. We get offended when people say we're not being careful enough."

But that's exactly what Gary Lekvold contends. At his home in nearby Pasco, he shows me his collections of guns, antiques, hand tools, and, neatly arranged in foot-high stacks, data for his lawsuit alleging that he was unjustly suspended from his job as a security engineer. He says that after he reported altered documents, misfunctioning security systems, and other violations, the government revoked his security clearance, citing a mere time-card infraction. Hearings on his character found only that he had lied about marijuana use on his job application. Much more serious allegations were not proven, Lekvold says.

"Almost everyone at Hanford sees waste, fraud, incompetence, technical blundering, and mismanagement," Lekvold tells me over dinner. "But if you want to get along out there, you keep your mouth shut." Lekvold was ordered to see a psychologist, and he believes he has been followed and wiretapped.

RUDDERLESS? After dinner, paranoia getting the better of me, I nervously check my rearview mirror as I drive to the home of another whistle-blower, Inez Austin. A senior engineer at one of the tank farms, she says her managers harassed her and threatened to fire her last June after she refused to allow a pumping procedure that might have resulted in an explosion. In December, she dropped a labor complaint against Westinghouse. Still, she thinks the company tends to change managers rather than solve problems: "Nobody is ever in charge. The buck doesn't stop."

On the job only since Jan. 14, Thomas M. Anderson is the fourth president of Westinghouse Hanford since it landed the contract in 1987. A former Navy man with 20 years of experience with Westinghouse nuclear projects, he is up against a deadline: Later this month, the government will decide whether to extend Westinghouse's contract. He has to prove progress in seven areas where the government faulted its performance last October, including employee concerns over safety and security.

He declined to comment on the whistle-blowers except to say: "In both those cases, safety issues were involved, and we've resolved them." To work out future complaints in-house, he added, managers are being trained to listen better.

Across town, the Energy Dept.'s top official at Hanford, John Wagoner, is also new. He arrived in July. A big part of his job is to make sure the federal money keeps flowing in. He's happy that Congress recently allocated $1.3 billion to Hanford for fiscal 1991, the most ever, and is considering more for `92.

At Battelle Memorial Institute's Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Richland, young scientists proudly show off 3-D computer models of molecules and a vat where microbes can destroy contaminants in groundwater. All in all, Michael L. Knotek, Battelle's senior science director, finds a "marvelous opportunity" in the challenge of returning the ground to the condition that a farmer 200 years from now could plow up or dig a well in.

But even as environmental technology is being pioneered, middle management seems stuck somewhere in the Eisenhower era, more intent on protecting secrets and championing the ailing nuclear industry than on public disclosure or improving the environment. They drag their feet, chafe at state regulators, downplay serious problems, and cover up mistakes, according to local critics, state officials, and federal investigators.

MYSTERIES. As I board the plane for Seattle, I realize that the truth about Hanford is sad. Nobody knows the best technology for cleaning it up. Nobody knows how long it will take, how much it will cost, how clean it can ever be. Nobody knows how best to rid Hanford of mismanagement and its oppressive culture.

With a "my country, right or wrong" mentality reminiscent of the 1950s, the bureaucrats of Hanford face one of the most critical environmental jobs of the 1990s. Their attitude begs the question: Are they up to the task?

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