Yesterday, after commenting on the state of US nuclear weapons waste storage on the Marshall Islands, we said, ‘one would expect that nuclear waste dumps built in the US will be to a better standard’. We take it back – we were wrong:

In the arid land of southeastern Washington State lies a remote area along the Columbia River that serves as a reminder of the Cold War standoff between the US and the Soviet Union. This 586-square foot relic is the Hanford site—a retired plutonium production complex that the Department of Energy (DOE) considers to be “the world’s largest environmental cleanup project.”

Some 525 million gallons of radioactive waste were generated by Hanford between 1944 and 1988, according to a Government Accountability Office report, and at least 56 million gallons of the stuff remains on site in leaky tanks. Already a million gallons of it has seeped into the ground and contaminated the Columbia River.

Approximately 450 billion gallons of waste has already been discharged into the soil during production at the Hanford site—an amount equal to about five days flow of the Columbia River.

Hanford is the most radioactive site in the US. The numbers involved in the country’s radioactive Cold War legacy are truly staggering, truly chilling:

[N]uclear weapons buildup over a 45-year span left behind a nationwide toxic waste legacy: 1.7 trillion gallons of contaminated groundwater, 40 million cubic meters of tainted soil and debris, more than 2,000 tons of radioactive spent nuclear fuel, more than 160,000 cubic meters of radioactive and hazardous waste, and more than 100 million gallons of liquid, high-level radioactive waste, according to Max S. Power, author of America’s Nuclear Wastelands: Politics, Accountability, and Cleanup.

Again, as with the Marshall Islands, it is the Department of Energy that is the villain of the piece. After declaring ‘the US has no formal custodial responsibilities for the [nuclear waste dump] site’ on one of the islands, their attitude to waste dumps on American soil is very much the same. ‘They’re trying to avoid the option of having to build storage tanks, which are very expensive, but the cost of a catastrophic tank failure is incalculable,’ says Robert Alvarez, senior scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies.’

The clock is ticking down to when the storage tanks on the site will fail – they are single-shell and their 20-year lifespan ended decades ago. The deadline for completely emptying the tanks is not until 2040. Last year a spill from one of the tanks halted the clean up work which was only restarted in June this year.

Earlier this year the Bush administration proposed cutting the clean up budget by $600 million – a one third reduction. That’s a very real illustration of how financial imperatives can trump moral and environmental ones – during hard times, priorities quite obviously lie elsewhere than in cleaning up one of the most contaminated places on Earth.

Nuclear waste is nuclear waste whether it’s produced by nuclear weapons programmes or nuclear reactors. The same principles apply. There are valuable lessons to be learned here for the decision makers. The only question is, will they learn them and in time? When you read about military nuclear waste being secretly buried in hills of earth at Tricastin in France or about seagulls bathing in radioactive water at Sellafield in England, it’s very clear how very far we have to go.