Page van der LindenPu Waste & Hanford

Unearthed at the Hanford Site: a bottle, containing Pu-239, dating to 1946. Image credit: Washington Closure.

Way back in 2004, workers began carefully excavating several burial grounds near the Hanford Site’s 300 Area. One of their discoveries had the feel of an archeological find:

A safe was encountered during the excavation of the 618-2 Burial Ground that contained a very pure form of Plutonium-239 on the interior surfaces and possibly in various liquids contained in the safe. The safe appears to be legacy waste from research performed in the 1940s. A metal beaker containing plutonium residue (with high Pu/Am concentration) was also uncovered in the stockpiles of waste from the 618-2 excavation.

That find, and a number of other contaminated bits and pieces, made the news; you can see more photos of the safe and its contents here.

It was yet another reminder to the public that the Cold War legacy is more than nuclear arsenals and treaties; there’s a significant, extremely complex environmental legacy as well.

Hanford’s plutonium problems, in particular, aren’t just limited to old, leaky tanks full of plutonium processing waste. During the Cold War years, a lot of contaminated equipment and other solid waste was buried at the Hanford Site, and many of the earliest records of what was buried at the site are incomplete. Liquid waste was also discharged to the soil. In summary, it’s a difficult, dangerous remediation task.

This all leads me to a recent New York Times article by Matthew Wald that bothered me, for a number of reasons.

All The News That’s Fit To Print?

The Wald article deals with a paper which will be published “later this year” claiming that the Department of Energy’s assessment of underground plutonium at Hanford is far less than what is really there:

The amount of plutonium buried at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State is nearly three times what the federal government previously reported, a new analysis indicates, suggesting that a cleanup to protect future generations will be far more challenging than planners had assumed.

Plutonium waste is much more prevalent around nuclear weapons sites nationwide than the Energy Department’s official accounting indicates, said Robert Alvarez [of the Institute for Policy Studies], a former department official who in recent months reanalyzed studies conducted by the department in the last 15 years for Hanford; the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory; the Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C.; and elsewhere.

Okay, that sounds fascinating and dramatic, and like there’s definitely cause for concern. It goes on to give some background, explaining that Hanford has the most plutonium contamination of any DOE site, that the danger of it reaching the vadose zone and the Columbia River is why all of this is worrying, and that if there’s so much more plutonium contamination than previously thought, it’ll take longer to clean it up. If you keep reading, you find that Alvarez has compared numbers released by the DOE in 1996 to more recent DOE reports, and has drawn his conclusions from that comparison.

There’s also a bit of hyperbole, like the activist who claims that drinking water will be so contaminated with plutonium in a few hundred years that “We’re going to be killing people, pure and simple.” and then “Mr. Alvarez’s estimate indicates that enough plutonium is buried at Hanford to create 1,800 Nagasaki-size bombs…”.

None of this is helpful, or accurate. Let me explain.

The article mentions that the Alvarez paper “has been accepted for publication later this year”. In other words, the author of the New York Times article is asking us to just believe everything he’s written, when we have absolutely no way to verify it, since Alvarez’s paper hasn’t even been published yet. Additionally, the article doesn’t make it clear that though much of the plutonium may be bomb-grade (plutonium-239), it’s all contamination, not pure, metallic, ready-for-prime-time-use-in-a-bomb plutonium. The bit about “1,800 Nagasaki-sized bombs” is just not relevant.

The Paper: Assumptions, Approximations, and Inaccuracies

What I did find, after a lot of digging and some leads from friends, is that Alvarez’s paper is available online. When the New York Times article first came out, Alvarez’s paper (pdf) was not easy to find, but he sent it to the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future prior to their visit to the Hanford Site, along with a letter (pdf) indicating that this, indeed, is the same paper that will be published later this year. (He has since posted his paper on the Institute for Policy Studies website.)

What immediately jumps out at me is that the author of the New York Times article either didn’t read the paper, or willfully exaggerated what it says. The paper actually says the DOE overall has three times more underground plutonium contamination than previously thought, and that Hanford may have twice as much as previously thought.

But the biggest problem is in the analysis itself. The underground “plutonium waste” at Hanford is not all the same, and therefore it does not all threaten to enter the groundwater in the same way. Some of it may never contaminate the groundwater; some of it already has.

Though Alvarez initially acknowledges that “[t]he behavior of plutonium in the environment depends upon its chemical form,” and that plutonium chemistry is quite complicated, he quickly moves on from that good point and leaps into a dangerous assumption: that you can lump all the buried plutonium waste at Hanford into the same environmental threat category, if you will. It’s true that that reclassification and underestimation of waste types at Hanford give the appearance that more plutonium is buried than they originally thought, but surface contamination on a piece of equipment in a cardboard box is not going to travel the same way underground as, say, plutonium in the plumes of underground waste from leaking tanks. Equating types of plutonium contamination for the sake of saying that it’s all going to be an environmental hazard is a huge generalization, and a mistake.

Basically, Alvarez comes up with a very good idea: he raises the interesting question of how the DOE is classifying plutonium waste, how much is really out there, and how should federal agencies address it, but he makes quite a few assumptions. Everyone knows that Hanford is a mess, and everyone would like to know more about it, but his paper doesn’t accomplish that goal. It’s based on too many estimates and lacks the accuracy that would make it a solid piece of research.

What the Department of Energy Says

I received a statement via email from a contact at the Department of Energy regarding the New York Times article, and Alvarez’s paper. They made it clear to me that they consider the Alvarez paper as part of the public comment process on their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Tank Waste Closure. They also emphasized that their final analysis will be based on actual data, versus estimates (emphasis mine):

The DOE Office of Environmental Management has asked an independent technical review board made up of scientists from the national labs, the Office of Science and NNSA to do a more comprehensive examination of Alvarez’s estimates. The board is reviewing the report now. This follows the normal protocol for completing an independent analysis of outside reports that are provided to the Department.

Many of Alvarez’s estimates are based on data we have collected as part of the EIS process. The Department’s estimates are based on our knowledge of the waste inventories and the processes used to generate them and include conservative bounds of what the contamination could be. But before we finalize any decisions on the cleanup, we undertake actual characterizations of the waste and base our final decision on that actual data.

During my recent visit to the Hanford Site, I got the impression that they are striving for transparency, which is why I’ll be very interested in what the outcome of their verification of Alvarez’s study will show.

As An Aside…

Finally, there are some statements that Alvarez makes that diverge, quite unexpectedly, from the topic of environmental concerns and plutonium waste. Curiously, he brings up accounting for fissile materials as part of arms reductions:

Characterization of radioactive wastes at nuclear weapons sites can reduce fissile material uncertainties necessary for deep nuclear arms reductions…

and, at the end of his paper, he talks about IAEA safeguards, which is confusing. Is Hanford plutonium waste something the IAEA should be interested in? It’s not exactly easy to make a weapon from it, so I’m not sure why Alvarez even brings this up:

The DOE’s Waste Acceptance Criteria system for WIPP appears to provide an adequate basis to allow for verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This would substantially increase the quantity of excess U.S. defense plutonium under IAEA safeguards, and demonstrate the U.S. commitment to irreversible nuclear arms reductions and set a precedent for international safeguards on other radioactive waste repositories containing significant quantities of plutonium.

I’ve given my input on the bulk of the paper, and some of the chemistry and environmental issues. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, but I’m also interested in your thoughts on his ideas about DOE plutonium waste as something about which the IAEA should be concerned. What do you think?


  1. Paul Carroll (History)

    Thanks for this reaction. I have a couple of thoughts. First, I think you are correct to critique the reporting about the Alvarez report. Inaccuracies or misleading statements it the article about the report should be called out.

    On the report itself, I agree that DOE Weapons Complex legacy waste and contamination are very complicated and, like statistics, you can almost make them do what you want to make your case.

    Two thoughts about context. I think what Bob is trying to do here is two things. One is to continue to ensure that DOE’s EM program is held accountable for doing as good a job as possible at accounting for historical materials production and waste quantities. 1996 was smack dab in the middle of the Clinton Administration’s “Openness Initiative” at DOE under Secretary O’Leary and transparency about operations and wastes was a hallmark. (The 1995 ‘Closing the Circle on the Splitting of the Atom’ was an early milestone publication from DOE on this; on which I worked). So “updating” analysis from 14 years ago, in principle, is a good thing. But I agree it may not be that useful in terms of the actual clean-up – it is already daunting enough.

    The second thing is the weapons and arms reduction statements. The report doesn’t go far enough in explaining the connection, but I think there is one. If we show good faith and willingness to have WIPP waste assayed so that calculations and statements about how much Pu was produced/discarded can be verified, that helps create a norm. I think what he is getting at is trying to construct a comprehensive accounting system for the Pu production cycle – waste and all. If 100 kg of Pu is chalked up by some country as “lost to waste” wouldn’t we want to know more about it? That’s roughly 20 bombs worth… I’d want to know it’s in soil, or in pipes, or otherwise not squirreled away somewhere. Japan’s plu-thermal program has already created lots of separated Pu; some in the UK, some in France – we want to have confidence that every gram is well accounted. I think that is what the statement about 1,800 bombs-worth is about. But I agree the linkage is not made clear.

  2. page (History)

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I totally agree re: context, and updating analysis. I think Alvarez’s paper could have benefited from more rigorous technical, statistical methods; what he presented as a “study” was a bit incomplete, but points in the right direction. It surely should make people think. I would love to know exactly what’s out there, but I am under the impression that there’s some stuff they can’t even dig up because it would be more risky than just leaving it there, though I need to check on that.

    Regarding the arms reduction statements, that was my exact problem too: it just wasn’t clear what point he was trying to make. However, you’ve made it clear what the concerns could be, which I appreciate. Where IS all that Pu? And what chemical form is it in? Some of it’s 100% impossible to retrieve, but is there stuff out there from which an extraction could be done more easily? (Tank waste is not something that I’d want to handle for Pu extraction — it’s pretty hot.)

  3. dave (History)

    I used to work for a DOE contractor that ran Hanford. (I was at another office). IMHO, the main problem with long-term planning for site remediation is that the on-site technical folks in charge of doing real work are ALWAYS trumped by politicians who make short-term decisions. Remember that within DOE, everything is political. If an upper-echelon bureaucrat in the Forrestal building does not like a number, like the amount of Pu contamination at Hanford, it WILL get changed when the report is released. HQ employees are famous for sending back reports with feedback saying, essentially, “We don’t like this tone, direction, or number. Can it read like THIS?”

  4. Gwyneth Cravens (History)

    Why the assumption on the part of Alvarez that the Pu contaminants at Hanford would play a role in nuclear arms discussions? Why would the US want to bother extracting Pu for weapons from Hanford waste when we already have a big stockpile of perfectly good Pu waiting to be turned into mixed-oxide fuel for power plants? Best possible use for Pu and a very good way to help curb proliferation and drastically reduce the spent nuclear fuel inventory.

    Thanks for taking on the NY Times article.

  5. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Thanks, Page. You’ve inspired me to work through the numbers in Alvarez’s report. Very confusing business.

    I’ve written it up here.

    Alvarez has a good point about more IAEA inspections at US facilities, though. I’m wondering why the arms control community hasn’t done more to encourage this.

  6. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Gwyneth, as the numbers of nuclear weapons decrease, nations producing plutonium are likely to have to present a mass balance to show that they’re not hiding any.

    Alvarez is right that it will be good to have the best numbers possible, but there’s no way that Russia or the US know their plutonium production down to the kilogram level, nor will they ever know this. The solution will most likely be that they will agree on some numbers during negotiations and work with those. Or they will agree on a methodology for accounting.

    There’s a bit more at my post.

  7. Lisa (History)

    Cheryl, I agree that the numbers in Alvarez’s report are a bit confusing. However, I disagree with Page’s statement that Hanford may just have twice as much Plutonium waste as previously thought. According to the numbers in Table 2 of Alvarez’s report, the most recent totals of estimates of Plutonium waste indicate that Hanford has 2.64 times the amount previously estimated in the 1996 report. I think Page is referring to the statement that there’s now estimated to be twice the amount of Plutonium in Hanford’s High-Level Nuclear Waste Tanks (page 4 of the report).

    If Alvarez’s report is based on “too many estimates,” as Page asserts, it’s harrowing to consider what USDOE uses as the basis for their cleanup decisions and documents, including environmental impact statements (decidedly not the most recent totals of estimates). Alvarez did not pull these numbers out of a bag; the report is based on USDOE’s own waste characterization data. Unfortunately, even USDOE’s most recent document portraying cumulative environmental impacts of Hanford’s waste burden and their cleanup plans (the draft Tank Closure and Waste Management Environmental Impact Statement) appears to have “missed” thousands of curies of Plutonium in the 200 Area burial grounds alone.

    Alvarez’s report arrives at a key time for Hanford cleanup public policy discussions about Pre-1970 Transuranic wastes and the unlined burial grounds in the 200 Area. Major public discussions on this issue have already started and a public workshop on the topic is scheduled for Fall 2010 (tentatively October). USDOE’s baseline plan for these burial grounds, unfortunately, is to not characterize their contents and cap them (witht he institutional controls that Alvarez discusses on page 10 & 11). Hopefully his report, or, at the very least, the premise of his report, has shed light on the gravity of the situation at Hanford and will provide momentum to discussion.

  8. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Alvarez did not pull these numbers out of a bag; the report is based on USDOE’s own waste characterization data.

    I haven’t looked at Alvarez’s sources. Simply trying to untangle what those sources were took me an hour or more last night.

    But, as I said in my post, we don’t know which numbers Alvarez chose from those DOE sources, why he chose them, or how he dealt with the uncertainties associated with them. If it took me an hour to figure out his sources and I’m still not clear on what he did with them, it’s going to take me much more time to figure out which numbers he used. And only he can tell us why he chose them.

    It’s up to Alvarez to tell us these things and provide credibility for his numbers. We don’t know whether the situation is grave or not until he does.

    • page (History)

      Cheryl – your post is highly recommended reading, if only for the reason that you point out a pretty serious problem. Alvarez’s paper isn’t a true scientific study, not by the books, and not by any stretch of the imagination. We don’t know his methods. He references the TWINS database, but doesn’t say what he took from it, how he analyzed it, what statistical methods he used. In short, it’s not a scientific paper in the strict sense of the word.

      Like I said in my post, I think he raises some interesting questions, but he didn’t go about it in the right way.

      Using his paper to prove anything isn’t something I’d recommend right now, until there is a true, rigorous workup of the numbers, including 100% transparency on WHERE they come from within the sources used, and HOW the numbers are analyzed.

    • Bob Alvarez (History)

      Dear Cheryl —

      You can find my exact references for my estimate of discarded plutonium at the bottom of Table 2.

    • Bob Alvarez (History)

      Hi Cheryl —

      The references at the bottom of Table 2 are also embodied in the bibliography. I use the document number on the bottom of p. 2 instead of the full reference. If you want me to walk you through this, let me know.

  9. Bob Alvarez (History)

    I appreciate the critique of my paper. Perhaps, a more careful reading of it might be helpful.

    I do not claim, as you charge,that all of the plutonium at Hanford is buried directly in the environment, and make it clear in the summary, Table 2 and the discussion about Hanford that about 700 kilograms of the total 4 metric tons were discarded as liquids and solids- currently considered by DOE to be permanently disposed.

    What also is clear is that assumptions about the migration of plutonium in the subsurface at Hanford have been proven wrong by direct measurements indicating significant contamination at depths in excess of 100 feet. As Figure 4 of may paper indicates, deep migration of plutonium at Hanford is orders of magnitude greater than at the Idaho National Laboratory, which has about twice as much plutonium buried prior to 1970.

    In order to protect the Snake River Aquifer, about 600 feet below INL’s plutonium burial sites, the state of Idaho is requiring removal of this plutonium for geologic disposal. There is no such requirement at Hanford, where DOE predicts that plutonium in groundwater will reach the nearshore of the Columbia River in less than 1,000 years at levels nearly 300 times greater than current driking water standards.

    Our knowledge about how plutonium behaves in the environment goes back about 50 years, and we can’t assume that we know there is to know about this radiotoxic material with a half-life of 24,000 years. After all, it was in only 1970, some 25 years after making tens of tons for weapons, that the U.S. government decided that plutonium wastes were dangerous enough to require deep geologic disposal so as to protect the human environment for at least 10,000 years.

    Finally, as I state in my opening sentence, “Characterization of radioactive wastes at nuclear weapons sites can reduce fissile material
    uncertainties necessary for deep nuclear arms reductions while serving to protect the human environment.”

    As nuclear arms cuts deepen, the importance of fissile material inventory uncertainties increase. This is because the main obstacle to weapons production reconstitution or “breakout” will be access to material. In this regard, reducing uncertainties how much plutonium was produced and discarded by weapons states becomes increasingly important. In turn safeguarding plutonium stocks will depend strongly on declarations and then on methods to verify these declarations. As I have found, the amount of plutonium discarded by the U.S. nuclear weapons complex appears to be more than three times greater than declared and that the total production of plutonium may be understated.

    The need for radioactive waste characterization to protect the human environment is self evident. In the case of characterizing wastes containing plutonium, here is where a critical connection between nuclear arms reductions and environmental protection is made.

    • page (History)

      Hi Bob,

      Just wanted to drop a quick comment in the thread to thank you for your remarks; I didn’t want you to think I was ignoring them. I’m feeling under the weather today; I’ll respond with something more worthwhile when I’m feeling more coherent! FYI: feel free to email me at page.vlinders (at) gmail (dot) com if you want.

    • Cheryl Rofer (History)

      Bob: Perhaps a more careful reading of my post might be helpful. I’ve noted there that your list of references for Table 2 is different from the bibliography, which you refer to in the text as the source of your numbers. In any case, you don’t say which numbers you have chosen or why you have chosen them, nor how you treat the uncertainties associated with any measurements.

      I’ve also dealt there with the question of uncertainties in plutonium inventory relative to arms control.

  10. Bob Alvarez (History)

    An additonal thought about my paper, Plutonium Wastes from the U.S. NucleR Weapons Complex.” The reason I call for United States to offer up the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New mexico, is that it is a de facto plutonium mine. DOE anticipates storing 7.9 MT of plutonium there, of which about 3.5 MT were originally to be used in weapons. There is a likelyhood that even more excess plutonium set aside for weapons will be stored at WIPP.

    As a weapon state, the United States is not currently obligated to place its nuclear activities
    under IAEA safeguards.

    In September 1993, however, President Clinton announced that the United States would place material deemed excess to its defense needs under IAEA safeguards.In 2009, however, the U.S. withdrew 10 tons of HEU that had been subject to IAEA inspection so it could be placed in a new consolidated HEU storage facility that was not designed to allow safeguards on some of its contents.

    WIPP would substantially increase the quantity of excess U.S. defense plutonium under IAEA safeguards, and demonstrate the U.S. commitment to irreversible nuclear arms reductions and set a precedent for international safeguards on other radioactive waste repositories
    containing significant quantities of plutonium.

  11. Steve Aplin (History)

    Good points everybody, especially Cheryl and Page. From Alvarez’s other, shall we say skeptical, commentary about other aspects of the nuclear industry, it’s safe to put him squarely in the “skeptic” category, if not in the outright anti-nuclear category.

    That doesn’t mean this particular study is flawed; hell, if he can hang an argument on credible numbers, and demonstrate it, then more power to him and tough beans for pro-nuclear people like me.

    I think what you have both shown pretty well is that he has yet to demonstrate that his references indeed back up his numbers. Until he does demonstrate this, I remain highly skeptical of what he says. Going by his previous comments to the BRC (see, he tends to make broad and sweeping assertions that fall apart in the light of closer analysis. e.g., reprocessing. Is it really a failure? Somebody should tell France, Germany, Belgium, Italy about this — they all burn recycled fuel.

    • Bob Alvaez (History)

      Hi Steve —

      As I mentioned to Cheryl, my specific references are just below table 2 of my paper, which you can also find in my biolography. I used reports that, with a few exceptions available on the internet. During the course of my work on this paper, I found some errors in the DOE’s 2007 annual TRU report, which in Appendix E greatly overstated the amount of WIPP-bound wastes at Los Alamos, and the Soil Inventory Model (SIM) data at Hanford which, while being used in PNL publications has errors and has not been subject to QA. Some data, such as mass-spectral borehole readings beneath Hanford disposal sites, the Tank Waste Inventory Network System,Best Basis Estimate (09-2003), and a Westinghouse study of Pre-1970 buried solid TRU wates at Hanford were withdrawn from public access, after briefing DOE.

      In fact, I sent my paper to DOE, including the agency’s Environmental Management Office and Nuclear Material Management and Safeguards System a month before it was made public. What I learned from this is that DOE has not updated its 1996 plutonium declaration — the last time DOE provided a complex-wide estimate of operating losses and inventory discrepancies.

      I respectfully disagree with you about the success of reprocessing and fast reactors. Otherwise, after 50 years and billions spent, why is it that so many “fast” reactors have failed, and civilian reprocessing plants have accumulated 250 MT of plutonium? Recently, it has been revealed in France that less than 12% of its spent reactor fuel has actually been recycled.

  12. Steve Aplin (History)

    Another thing, Page: you, Gwyneth, and Paul wondered what point Alvarez is trying to make by talking about weapons and arms reduction. Alvarez likes to take a total amount of plutonium, then divide that by the amount of pure Pu-239 you need for a weapon, and claim that the quotient represents the number of bombs you can get out of the first amount.

    The issue of isotopic suitability of the material for a real bomb appears to be a non-issue as far as he is concerned. So what’s the point of mentioning weapons and arms reduction? Weapons is the operative word; arms reduction is thrown in to signify concern for peace. Nuclear in any form is a proliferation threat.

    That’s called scaremongering, and it never hurts when you are trying to influence a public debate, as Alvarez is trying to do with the BRC. Notice that the NYTimes piece was published as the BRC was about to visit Hanford.

  13. Steve Aplin (History)

    Bob, thanks for your response. On reycling, I was talking about MOX-in-LWR, not fast reactors. If France, whose recycling is based on MOX-in-LWR, has in fact recycled only 12 percent of its used fuel, does that indicate that recycling has failed? I’d say it just indicates they need to continue recycling, and expand it (from 21 reactors to most if not all of their 58-reactor fleet).

    Also, as I mentioned, nuclear utilities in neighboring countries send used fuel to France for recycling. To me, that does not indicate that recycling has generally “failed.” It indicates that, properly done, it is both technologically and commercially viable. Japan realizes this, which is why it is completing its own MOX plant.

    As for your claim that fast reactors have failed, that seems a somewhat premature assessment. Most commercial R&D has gone into moderated reactors, because they are the machines that are making the money these days — they represent the predominant technology. Just because moderated reactors are today the predominant technology doesn’t mean fast ones have failed.

  14. Gwyneth Cravens (History)

    @Bob Alvarez:
    Thanks for your responses.
    Who did the peer review on your report about the Pu inventory at Hanford?

    • Bob Alvarez (History)

      The reviewers were anonymous. I addition, I sent a draft to DOE’s EM HQ Office and to the DOE Office of Nuclear Material Safeguards and ecurity, which keeps book on pu inventories. As I mentioned in the reply to Steve, I learned from DOE that it hadn’t updated it’s 1996 estimate of normal operating losses and didn’t dispute my numbers.

  15. Gwyneth Cravens (History)

    Thanks, Bob.