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Pollett on Nuclear Pollution

On March 14, 2024, a news alert from the Seattle Times dropped into my email inbox with the headline: "In WA, another massive melter aims to make nuclear waste safer"

Knowing that nuclear waste is rarely safe, I clicked the update on the latest "progress" report. The massive cleanup project at Hanford is led by the current contractor, Bechtel. A second melter had been "heated up" to 300 degrees. The goal - in order to achieve vitrification (think corraling all the muck into a snow globe that no one will be allowed to shake) - is 2100 degrees. The simultaneous operation of two melters will be a significant step, one which they have been trying to take for almost almost decade.

This moment - getting the melter to heat up - has been decades in the making and the current plan, quietly updated several years ago, delays vitrification until 2025, and then, only for low-level radioactive waste. High-level waste treatment is now targeted for 2033.

I pinged Gerry Pollet to get his take on the "news," especially the last line in the article, referring to the first melter start-up in 2022: " temperatures approached 300 degrees, the heatup was halted as a problem was discovered with the power supply to the melter's start up heaters."

Gerry's response came a day later. "Heart of America Northwest’s Report Card on the USDOE Hanford Cleanup 5-Year Plan gives USDOE an “F” for Tank Waste Treatment"

Gerry went on to explain that the current plan for treating and disposing of the low-level waste has been subject to a variety of missteps that haven't exactly made the news. He enumerated the following bullet points that Heart of America NW (the citizen group monitoring Hanford for decades) will make in an upcoming presentation this spring:

  1. The current plan fails to disclose that 2 high-level nuclear waste tanks are leaking (and more may be leaking). The Five Year Plan does not include any course of action to remove leachable liquids from leaking tanks.

  2. The FY’25 Budget Request fails to identify any funds to meet legal requirements to remove leakable liquids from leaking tanks to stop release into the soil.

  3. Our (Hands Across America NW) grade is reduced from a B- in 2022 to an F - due to further delay and USDOE not disclosing mismanagement of pretreated waste staged for vitrification. This will require treating the 650,000 gallons over again.

  4.  At best, treatment will not start until sometime late in 2026.

  5. The USDOE Plan lacks strategies for responding to delays, etc. For more, see

I first met visionary Gerry Pollet in 2009. We were both on the campaign trail. Gerry had thrown his hat in the ring for WA State Representative for the 46th District, and I was running for the Seattle School Board. Snippets of conversations about Hanford and the growing problems surrounded Gerry at every candidate forum.

At that point, the groundbreaking Tri-Party Agreement - a formal agreement between the US Dept of Energy, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the WA State Department of Ecology that put structure to the massive cleanup at Hanford - was twenty years old and the challenges of disposing with millions of gallons of nuclear waste had only grown.

Photo credit NBS News

Pollet hit hard on this problem in his stump speeches, daylighting the ongoing obstacles and emphasizing that this was not just a Washington State problem, but a global one. And he knew what he was talking. Gerry had led the 2004 ballot initiatives that barred the federal government from using Hanford as a national radioactive waste dump.

Quick impressive backstory: After graduating from UW Law School, Gerry mounted his environmental justice white steed, took on the nuclear weapons industry, and forced the US government to stop producing plutonium at Hanford. He founded Heart of America Northwest, a citizens group dedicated to monitoring and supporting the cleanup efforts. Heart of America Northwest

After spending eighteen months down the Hanford rabbit hole of research in prep for my debut novel, I caught up with Pollet in November of 2023 via Zoom. His demeanor was that of a seasoned warrior, plenty of fight left under the philosophical veneer.

The grin is infectious and most often wry. Pollet's level of frustration with the "system" is justified. When he began this work in 1980, the Feds were still denying any pollution of the Columbia. The DOE (US Department of Energy) fought all claims made by nuclear weapons complex workers that chemicals and radiation may have caused any illness or death.

No classified documents regarding any of the production at Hanford had been released. No one thought there was a current problem around contamination. So when graduate students working on a thesis around the significant dangers of the waste deposits at Hanford, Gerry told them, "Yeah, we're going to work on this, but we all have to get a life and work on other environmental issues that are more pressing." That was forty-two years ago and as Pollet admits with a laugh, "Here I am (still)."

Russell Jim of the Yakama Nation was instrumental in the movement. "He had an amazing presence," says Pollet in a reverent tone. Jim recounted how his father and grandfather had buried their canoes along the riverbanks after being told by the military leaders of Hanford, that they would be able to come back when WWII ended. But of course, they were not allowed back.

Pollett recalls Jim saying to the tribal leaders, "We have to have a presence in what is going on at Hanford because it is our ceded land." Jim lobbied for the DOE to include tribes (with treaty rights near any site being proposed for a nuclear waste repository) to be a part of the process. After securing federal legislation that mandated oversight by the tribes, Jim chaired the Yakama Nations Environmental Waste Management program until he died in 2018. Russell also advocated for Washington state to create a Nuclear Waste Advisory Council on which he also served.

Back to the thesis boys, Russell took the time to sit with the two geology grad students and Gerry - as Pollet says, "You know, we were three white people...but Russell was a natural mentor. He opened the door to my work with the tribe for forty years." But more importantly, Russell inspired me to go farther.

Six years later, Pollet and key activists organized "Hands Across the Columbia" in protest of the repositories being located at Hanford. It was the single largest protest ever in the state - over 2000 people joined hands stretching over the Interstate 5 bridge (between Oregon and Washington) over the Columbia, downstream from Hanford. The protest garnered national press and enough political pressure that the Governor came out in support of legislation that essentially allowed the state of Washington to veto any decision by the DOE to locate a repository at Hanford.

Slade Gorton insisted - at the last minute - on joining the protest, not wanting to give all the limelight to his senatorial opponent, Brock Adams, but Gorton lost anyway. By 1987, more classified documents were released, proving the overwhelming pollution of groundwater, soil, river water, and the air around Hanford. Long buried government documents were released, adding fuel to the "clean up" fire, but the state was bound by law that said: The WA State Dept of Ecology couldn't step foot on the Hanford Reservation without the express permission of the DOE.

Tennessee, which houses the site of Oak Ridge (the other plutonium production facility), took their case to the Supreme Court of the United States and won the right to monitor the facilities within its borders.

Meanwhile, Pollet founded HofANW and wrote a 30-year clean-up plan. Many of the supporting documents for my novel were daylighted in tandem with Pollet building political muscle.

In 1989, the state signed the Hanford Clean-up Agreement, but the single-shell tanks were oddly absent from the agreement, essentially allowing the DOE to sidestep reporting leaks from those tanks and to keep dumping waste straight into the ground.

In 1991, Pollet sued the DOE. In a head-scratching move, the State of Washington and the EPA opposed Pollet in court, saying they had to keep dumping the waste "because the facilities in the 300-Area were essential for cleanup." So Pollet traveled to D.C. and met with the newly installed Clinton administration and said, "Do you guys really want to be on the side of dumping untreated nuclear waste directly into the soil and not reporting high-level leaks?"

The Clinton team said "nope," and Pollet's crew secured an agreement to end the dumping. That agreement is the single greatest tool today for stopping leaks. "Every step of the way, the state (of Washington) has had to be dragged into doing anything proactive," reports Pollet, despite Hanford being adjacent to the major watershed for Western Canada and five US states.

Pollet's team asked the US General Accounting Office (GAO) to review the DOE claims about the leaks. In 1991 to everyone's great surprise, the GAO released a report saying the DOE had been engaged in a massive coverup about the breadth of the leaks and declared Hanford a major environmental disaster site. Two whistleblowers testified in front of a congressional hearing about the practices at the Purex plant at Hanford, and it was shut down promptly.

Back in D.C., US Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson wanted a study of the beryllium exposures at Hanford, but the DOE wouldn't admit they used beryllium at Hanford. An internal federal investigation unearthed multiple documents that showed beryllium in use across multiple Hanford worksites. Additional documents showed that the DOE had funded an internal audit of beryllium levels by an outside contractor, who issued a report declaring Hanford "beryllium free" when in fact the beryllium levels at Hanford were 2.5 times higher than the "acceptable levels" set by the DOE itself. Workers were forced back into buildings and exposed once again to wildly unsafe levels of beryllium.

Eight years later, in 1999, then US Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson issued a full apology to the American people saying the practices at Hanford had exposed workers to chronic beryllium disease (CBD), most often fatal, but not always evident immediately after exposure.

Further advocacy resulted in the passage of the Nuclear Weapons Worker Compensation Law and the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.  Congress passed the legislation in a bipartisan virtually unanimous vote. The Act paved the way for hearings on the beryllium levels in the Hanford workplace.

"Today we know that the "acceptable" levels in the 90s, were one hundred times higher than what is actually safe," Pollet intoned. Beryllium spreads like plutonium. If someone is "sensitized" to beryllium, once exposed they usually die within a decade.

DOE has calculated that just two minutes of exposure to some of the high-level waste can be lethal. An astonishing high level of contamination exists under the 300-area buildings. A huge struggle continues over how to combat the leaks in high-level waste tanks. The vitrification plant won't be operational until 2025. Pollet says, "Most likely 2026."

Gerry is sitting on documents showing six more tanks are leaking, but he laments, "No one covers Hanford anymore. Other than King Five News." Pollet says the one bright spot is the proposal for a "cease and removal," a strategy that would ship waste to Texas or Utah to be stored/buried in areas where no groundwater exists under the soil (Washington and Nevada don't qualify).

But, the DOE can't get the state of Washington to agree to this strategy even though they support it. (I know, I scratched my head at that too.) He shot me a wry smile and said, "Even the one bright spot requires a push from citizen activists." Pollet continued, "We need a new campaign to get it going." I could hear the fatigue in his voice. The long road keeps getting longer.

The WA State Dept of Ecology regulators now live in the Tri-cities. According to Pollet, "... if anyone is willing to speak up about any kind of problem they are ostracized...and when someone new is hired in the department, the contractor at Hanford assigns an employee to welcome them and become their pal in the Tri-cities." A few years ago, the WA State Dept of Ecology signed a deal to let the waste tanks keep leaking indefinitely - until a remedy can be found - but they did erect a big sign.

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