Monday, July 03, 2017

The Legacy of Hanford

One era's triumph can turn into another era's disaster, and perhaps no better example of that in the field of nuclear energy and weapons is the Hanford Site in south-central Washington State, about 200 miles from Seattle.  During the height of World War II, physicist Enrico Fermi designed a nuclear reactor for the Dupont Corporation to produce plutonium that was needed for nuclear weapons, as part of the ultra-secret Manhattan Project.  The small farming community of Hanford, Washington was selected for the site of the reactor and associated chemical processing plants, and more than 40,000 construction workers swarmed to the bank of the Columbia River in 1943 to build what became known after the war as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. 

Because plutonium is one of the most deadly radioactive substances known, plant designers had to come up with novel ways of transporting large volumes of liquid and solid plutonium-containing material while keeping workers either far away from the load or behind several feet of radiation shielding.  Accordingly, one of the first industrial applications of closed-circuit TV was to view remote-controlled plutonium-handling equipment.  In view of the hazards of spills during transportation from the producing reactors to the processing plant, a railway tunnel was constructed of timbers and steel, buried in a foot or more of earth on top.  Plutonium that went into the "Fat Man" nuclear bomb used on Nagasaki, Japan probably passed through this tunnel, as did dozens of tons of plutonium used to make nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

Beginning in the 1960s, plutonium production ceased at Hanford, as it was realized that the site was heavily contaminated with long-lasting radioactive material and was no longer usable by then-current safety standards.  When the U. S. populace felt its back was to the wall during the war, not many people raised issues about long-term health hazards of working with nuclear weapons.  But as the threat of nuclear war declined after the Partial Test Ban Treaty between the USSR and the US in 1963, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most production activity ceased at Hanford and instead, a massive cleanup became the top priority.  The U. S. Department of Energy now spends billions of dollars a year on the Hanford cleanup, employing 8,000 people at the site and taking reasonable precautions about keeping workers safe.  But since President Trump's appointment of former Texas governor Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, the media has paid more attention to the Department and any problems it may have, the most recent of which is the collapse of part of the roof of the old railroad tunnel used to transport plutonium.

The hole in the tunnel, more than ten feet across, was discovered on May 9, and as a precaution, many employees at the site were told to shelter in place until measurements could be taken to tell if substantial amounts of radioactive material had been released.  Investigation showed that no such release occurred, and the hole has since been covered in plastic and plans made to fill the old tunnel with grout.  Several railroad cars used to transport plutonium remain in the tunnel, which is altogether too radioactive to be inspected by humans, although robotic inspections are possible.  A second larger tunnel built in the 1950s has also shown signs of structural instability, and Hanford managers are planning to do something about preventing its collapse by August.

It would be nice if engineering ethics consisted of a set of unchanging rules, and doing engineering ethically simply meant understanding and following the rules.  But a phrase I recently came across expresses nicely the difference between the discipline of ethics and the disciplines of the hard sciences. 

Ethics is a "humane science"—meaning not that it's kind to animals, but that its "laws" are really just generalizations that depend on the nature of humanity, and so cannot show the ironclad reliability and constancy of physical laws.  This is not to argue for relativism—the notion that all ethical principles are relative to particular times, places, and cultures.  Rather, it is to confess both ignorance—no finite human being can possibly know all the relevant considerations in a particular ethical situation—and the fact that as human cultures and societies change, what is regarded as ethical behavior in a given circumstance can also change. 

In the case of Hanford, what has changed the most is our sense of priorities.  In 1939, the U. S. suspected Hitler of building a nuclear weapon, and Japanese troops were showing signs of fighting to the last man on the last domestic island of that nation.  For good or ill (plenty of both, actually), Roosevelt gave the green light to the Manhattan Project, which led to the first production and use of nuclear weapons six years later.  Both leaders and ordinary citizens felt seriously that the U. S. was fighting for its life, and in such a situation, concerns about exposures to levels of radiation that might possibly lead to cancer in twenty or thirty years, or might pollute the environment for hundreds of years, simply faded into the background.

Having enjoyed relative peace in the North American continent ever since the end of World War II, the U. S. can now afford to deal with the messes it created during the war, Hanford being the leading example.  Many opponents of nuclear power take the acres of lethal radioactivity at Hanford to be proof sufficient to lead us to swear off all use of nuclear power forever, amen.  And it must be admitted that disasters such as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-reactor fire in Ukraine are uniquely horrible.  Shutting down all nuclear plants would presumably avoid such incidents in the future. 

But nuclear energy is also uniquely suited to address the increasingly prominent issue of global warming.  While it is an open question whether renewable energy can compete economically with nuclear energy for the world's short-term energy needs, it would be shortsighted to rule nuclear out altogether because of an emotional reaction against it not based on an objective view of the facts.  Unfortunately, there are lots of facts to view, and so nuclear power remains controversial, as it probably always will simply because its first public use was to bring us the horrors of nuclear war. 

Sources:  I referred to news reports on the Hanford tunnel-roof collapse carried by the Washington Post on May 9 at, and the Seattle Times on June 30 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on the Hanford Site. 

1 comment:

  1. So what is the viability of engineering ethics, today, to the engineers at Hanford? I say engineering ethics is fundamentally unethical in scope and implementation, making risks of nuclear accidents/terrorism unnecessarily higher