The Half-life of Stupidity

I know that I seem to drone on about all things nuclear, raising stories that happen far away from Vermont; but I do so because so little attention is paid to the topic outside of any immediate crisis.

As with all technical issues, most of us are ill-equipped to connect the dots and fully understand how systemic dysfunction occurring thousands of miles away may predict trouble we might ultimately face close at home.

Today’s tidbit  was gleaned from the pages of Enformable,  which consolidates a lot of nuclear-related stories from across the globe.  Links are provided in Enformable’s post to the original news sources.

It is a tale of government contracting for nuclear decommissioning which has a predictably bad trajectory.

The story concerns the Hanford Reservation in the desert region of Washington State, where [part of] the Manhattan Project was carried out and plutonium produced for military use since the end of World War II.

In all, nine nuclear reactors were built at Hanford, the last of which ceased operation in 1987. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now estimates that as a result of the nuclear work done at Hanford’s facilities, 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste were produced and more than 130 million cubic yards of soil ultimately were contaminated.

According to Alternet (also quoted above):

During Hanford’s lifespan, 475 billion gallons of radioactive wastewater were released into the ground. Radioactive isotopes have made their way up the food chain in the Hanford ecosystem at an alarming rate. Coyote excrement frequently lights up Geigers, as these scavengers feast on varmints that live beneath the earth’s surface. Deer also have nuclear radiation accumulating in their bones as a result of consuming local shrubbery and water. The EPA has deemed Hanford the most contaminated site in North America

Hanford also has the distinction of being the most costly environmental clean-up of all time, thanks in no small part to the current efforts by Bechtel National Inc. to run the bill up as high as possible.

Less familiar to us than the infamous Halliburton, Bechtel has left its own trail of shady and shoddy contracting activity, mostly with regard to pipelines.  But it seems, the more spectacular the failures, the more likely the failing company is to get a second, third and fourth bite at the apple of government

contracts.  ACORN should have been so lucky!

…And Bechtel got to bite off the biggest environmental clean-up contract of all time at Hanford. The numbers are staggering.

Bechtel holds the $12.2 billion contract to build a plant to treat up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste left from the past production of plutonium from the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Despite decades of cleanup efforts and billions of taxpayer dollars spent, only a tiny fraction of Hanford’s radioactivity has been safely contained

Apparently even this isn’t going to close the books on Bechtel’s compensation:

Bechtel has submitted a request for at least part of a $15 million incentive payment for reducing sodium. DOE still is evaluating whether payment should be made.

Despite decades of cleanup efforts and billions of taxpayer dollars spent, only a tiny fraction of Hanford’s radioactivity has been safely contained, and the situation appears to be getting more polarized if not hostile.

So contentious is the issue within the Department of Energy that a DOE employee claims she was detained and prevented from leaving a meeting at the Hanford facility.

No doubt Bechtel, which has its fine hand in Fukushima remediation as well, will be rewarded with an even more lucrative contract in the future.

Which brings me to my point.  Does anyone really know how much decommissioning a nuclear reactor like Vermont Yankee will cost by the time the loser in Entergy’s game of hot potato finally has to pony up?  We know that the reserve fund is significantly less than the estimates; but how realistic are those estimates; and how much power over cost-containment would the state ultimately have (if worst came to worst) when the DOE’s own contractors are able to so successfully game the system?

What was that claim again?  “Cheap, reliable and clean?”

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

11 thoughts on “The Half-life of Stupidity

  1. keep on “droning” you do great work! I read them all & greatly admire your faithfulness, a bright light in a dark & lonely place. I have not commented or contributed much except recently because I am buried in work and the hardships of life & some small tragedies with no releif in sight. I went so long w/o signing in-months I forgot my 6 character password.

    This topic is as heartbreaking as it is frustrating &  extremely maddening. I have heard that the brain tries to protect itself from pain so I’m thinking the avoidance is subliminal.

  2. I had a long conversation with the husband of a coworker at a party. He had been doing accounting on the Hannaford project for a few years before ditching it for Vermont.

    Here’s one concept: Hundreds of single walled mild steel underground tanks, maybe 15′ diameter and 50′ long, filled with death-level radioactive sludge. All rusted to some great extent, inside and out. The sludge is so thick that it has to be carefully heated to liquefy it before being pumped out, hopefully without rupturing the tank.

    He said that it was going to be the most expensive single industrial project in human history. This was over ten years ago, and he was predicting that it would top $50 billion, no problem.

    The end concept is processing the radioactive material into “gravel” and then encapsulating that gravel in sausage shaped glass cylinders, maybe 3′ in diameter and 12′ long. Then it sits until plate tectonics subsumes it.

    Overall, we are a stupid, shortsighted species.

  3. .. is the closest model we have for decommissioning (same GE reactor), but they had the sense to shut down some years ago.  VY’s will be more complex by far with all the spent fuel accumulated there.  

    “FULL BODY BURDEN: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats” by Kristen Iverson (2012, Crown) describes the equivalent fiasco of Rocky Flats from some interesting points of view – the people who grew up next to it.  Neighbors actually thought that cleaning supplies were produced there!  Dow Chemical, then Rockwell, then EG&G did a stupendously careless and illicit job of operating Rocky Flats and its waste.  I lived near it for a couple of years in my innocent youth.  

  4. He had been doing accounting on the Hannaford project for a few years before ditching it for Vermont.

    Nothin’ to do with the grocery store chain.


    So we’ve got a [nuclear reactor] containment that doesn’t contain. A regulator who doesn’t have the capability to regulate. And an industry with a series of cracks or holes in containments that continues to believe that there is zero probability of a containment leak. ~ Arnie Gundersen

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