Atomic Wine

Wine Country’s Nuclear Threat

A nuclear facility in Washington state’s prime wine country is leaching radioactive groundwater and is one natural disaster away from Fukushima 2.0.

03.29.15 1:52 AM ET

The Hanford Site, a former nuclear-weapons production facility located in southeastern Washington State near the Oregon border, is one natural disaster away from a Fukushima-like catastrophe, according to environmental groups who also claim the site—which sits near some of the state’s best vineyards—is leaking radioactive groundwater into the nearby Columbia River.

Activists blame the dangers on the slow pace of the U.S. government’s efforts to clean up the radioactive waste spread across the site’s 586 square-mile expanse and in the groundwater beneath it. Washington State officials agree that cleanup efforts are behind schedule, and have once again taken the federal government to court seeking a judge’s order to get the Hanford Site’s radiation-remediation program back on track.

The Hanford Site, bounded on the north and east by the Columbia River, is in an area that is subject to potential earthquakes—the last one of note, a 6.1 on the Richter scale, sent tremors through the area in 1936. The site is also downstream from two dams, one of which—about 30 miles from Hanford—is under repair after a 2-inch-wide, 65-foot-long crack was discovered in its façade early last year, though local officials contend it poses no flood risk.

In addition, Hanford is in an area prone to wildfires, which have crossed the borders of the site in the recent past.

“The concern for Hanford is twofold,” said Washington State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who also serves as executive director of the environmental group Heart of America Northwest. “The level of contamination from the site entering the Columbia River will only continue to grow if it isn’t cleaned up. Second, if there is a major incident like an earthquake, we could have a massive release of radiation from multiple facilities at Hanford.”

Beyond the threat of natural disasters and the slow creep of highly contaminated groundwater toward the Columbia River, the Hanford Site also faces a serious international and domestic public-perception problem that poses a risk to the vitality of Washington’s $51 billion agricultural industry.

A 2012 report prepared for the Washington State Wine Commission indicates that the state is the “second largest wine producer in the U.S., after California.” Internationally, Washington State is the third-largest exporter of food and agricultural products, according to state officials, with leading products including fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and seafood.

Any accident at the Hanford Site that raises the specter of crop or livestock contamination has the potential to stoke fear in international and domestic markets, particularly in light of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake in Japan that wreaked havoc on a nuclear power plant there. In the case of that nuclear disaster, there were no radiation-related deaths, according to a 2013 United Nations report.

Still, in the wake of that catastrophe, which led to the meltdown of three reactor cores at the Daiichi nuclear power plant and a massive radiation release, more than 40 nations, including the U.S., imposed bans or restrictions on a range of Japanese agricultural and food products, some of which are still in effect.

By comparison to the Fukushima nuclear plant, the Hanford Site is a super-sized version of radiation risk. In addition to some 450 billion gallons of waste and wastewater discharged into the soil over Hanford’s 45-year history as a nuclear-weapons factory, which dates back to the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s, the site also is home to an active nuclear power plant that stores radioactive spent fuel onsite. In addition, the soil and groundwater at the Hanford Site, which has been in cleanup mode since 1989, remains contaminated with hazardous and nuclear waste. Some of that radioisotope-laced groundwater is already entering the Columbia River, according to numerous government reports.

Among the contaminates from the Hanford Site that are already reaching the river, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology, are the radioisotopes tritium and strontium-90—the latter known as a “bone seeker” due to its propensity to deposit in human bone marrow once ingested in sufficient quantity, increasing the risk for cancer.

In fact, pump-and-treat systems along the Columbia River’s edge already remove some 100,000 pounds of contaminates from that groundwater annually, according to pleadings in Washington State’s federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees Hanford. Still, radioactive substances like strontium-90 “are entering the river in some places at 1,000-times the drinking-water standard,” Pollet said.

However, even some environmentalists, including Pollet, concede that the threat to both humans and agriculture is minimal, at least at this time, because of the diluting effects of the powerful Columbia, which is the fourth-largest river in the nation.

“The radioactive contaminates entering the Columbia River from groundwater seeps and springs are quickly diluted by the vast amounts of water in the river,” said Mike Priddy, manager of the Environmental Sciences Section of the Office of Radiation Protection at the Washington State Department of Health. “We have many times sampled water near the seeps and seen contaminates only to be completely unable to detect them just a few meters away. The drinking water in this area is monitored and no radiological public health risk has ever been detected.”

But environmental groups also contend that Hanford is in a race against time, since the extensive contaminated groundwater plumes under the site are growing with each decade that goes by, fed by wastes leaching into the groundwater from the soil above. And Mother Nature—in the form of earthquakes, floods or fires—could change the dynamic overnight, they argue.

Even talking about the risks “creates concern in the agricultural community,” said Hector Castro, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

“But it is a concern,” he conceded. “Anything that could affect their ability to get products to market is always a problem. About 30 percent of agricultural products in Washington are exported.”

Though the threat to Hanford from an earthquake or even a flood from a ruptured dam may seem a highly improbable scenario, it might not take such a catastrophic incident to spark an international reaction.

Castro said in 2013, when new leaks were discovered in several of the 177 underground tanks at Hanford—which hold some 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste—Washington State officials did get inquiries from international markets about the threat to agricultural products. In that case, the leaks did not pose an immediate danger to people or agriculture in the area, state and federal officials said.

“Our piece was to assure we monitored milk and crops and to assure food was safe for consumers and to give confidence to customers overseas,” Castro said.

Environmental groups stress that the slow pace of the federal government’s cleanup efforts at Hanford, though, is only raising the stakes for both agriculture and for people living near the nuclear reservation—which borders the Tri-Cities metro area, home to some 253,000 residents. In addition to the groundwater threat, the Columbia River is tapped for both drinking water and irrigation uses in the area.

“There is so much radiation risk that exists for years to come at the site,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper. “We support cleaning up Hanford so in the future we don’t have to worry that there will be a bigger leak. There is agriculture all around that site.”

The Hanford nuclear reservation is in Benton County, which is in the heart of Washington’s wine-producing region. The Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau’s website boasts that “more than 160 wineries” are within a “60-mile radius” of the metro area “producing some of the finest wines in the world.” The Tri-Cities includes Richland, which abuts Hanford on the south, as well as the adjacent communities of Kennewick and Pasco.

What is not on the Tri-Cities website, however, is a copy of the DOE report released last year that indicated trace amounts of the radioisotope tritium were found in wine samples collected near Hanford in 2013 “that could have potentially originated from the Hanford Site.” Tritium is considered one of the least-threatening radioisotopes because it generally passes from the body quickly, but it still can increase cancer risk because it releases radiation.

Priddy of the Washington State Department of Health stressed, however, that “the levels DOE reports in food stuffs (including wine) do not pose a human health risk.”

Likewise, in the aftermath of a wildfire that breached the Hanford Site boundaries in 2000, the DOE reported that plutonium levels rose above normal levels at monitoring stations in the Tri-Cities communities of Pasco and Richland. The plutonium measured, though, was well below levels that would pose a threat to human health, Washington State Health Department officials announced at the time. Dust and ash spread by the fire was the suspected source of the plutonium, which is among the more deadly radioisotopes since it can stay in the body, emitting radiation for decades if ingested or inhaled.

The 2000 fire roared through Benton County and over three closed waste tranches at the Hanford site but avoided the most critically contaminated sites on the reservation—such as the tank farm harboring millions of gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste as well as nearby water pools storing more than 1,900 capsules of highly radioactive strontium and cesium that require cooling to reduce their temperature. DOE officials told the media at the time that fire protections, such as gravel mounds and firebreaks, were in place for those sensitive sites.

But the threat of future wildfires is very real for the Hanford Site. Washington Governor Jay Inslee this month declared a drought emergency for much of Benton County and adjacent Walla Walla County because of record-low snowfall in Washington’s mountains.

“The cleanup at Hanford remains a top priority for the governor,” said Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Inslee. “He has been pushing aggressively to make sure Congress funds this effort and DOE completes the cleanup according to agreed-upon timelines. Those timelines have already been pushed back, and the governor and our state Attorney General are seeking much stronger accountability measures to keep the cleanup on track.”

A major fight in the pending federal court battle between Washington State and the DOE is over the deadline for getting a multibillion-dollar waste-treatment plant up and running on the Hanford Site to process the 56 million gallons of hazardous and radioactive waste remaining in the underground tank farm into a form that is far safer for long-term storage. That plant was supposed to be fully operational by 2022, based on a prior court-sanctioned consent degree inked in 2010, but the DOE, in recent court pleadings, contends meeting that deadline isn’t feasible because of technical and budget issues. DOE officials failed to respond to several requests for comment for this story.

A half-dozen agricultural industry groups in Washington State contacted for this story did not respond to questions about the threat of agricultural-product export bans or consumer panic should international or domestic markets react, even without merit, to a perceived or real threat due to some future incident at Hanford. However, Tom Davis, director of government relations for the Washington Farm Bureau, did offer this response: “We only have the following comment on this issue: We support the responsible, ongoing cleanup effort at the Hanford Nuclear Facility that will protect surrounding agricultural lands.”

Castro of the Washington State Department of Agriculture said measures that can be taken in response to any agricultural emergency include halting the harvesting of crops or the transportation of affected food products or setting up “food-control areas.” But to date, he added, “we have not had to do that with Hanford,” stressing the site is actively monitored.

Pollet of Heart of America Northwest argues that talking about the threats posed by Hanford to Washington State agriculture, as well as to the health of its residents, is critical, adding that “if we don’t, it comes true because we do not create the political momentum to get the site cleaned up.”

“A congressman in Maryland or elsewhere is not going to support spending the $2 billion or more a year [over the next few decades] that it takes to get Hanford cleaned up if Washington State or the DOE are saying there is no big risk,” Pollet said. “We simply can’t keep a cork in the bottle over this information.”