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Waterfront nuclear plant with rounded towers.

In 1942, a small town in southern Washington State went nuclear. The U.S. Army claimed 670 square miles to construct and test a plutonium production plant known as the B Reactor. The Columbia River running right through the site’s north end provided the 25,000 gallons of water per minute needed by the facility, and the newly built Grand Coolee Dam powered it.

In Hanford, Wash., the Manhattan Project was off with a literal bang.

But there was a caveat: taking care of Hanford’s environment. Every kilogram of plutonium created results in hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive waste, and this waste is still being managed to this day.

An Issue of ‘Temporality’

Some hazardous waste is like that, according to a study by the Veolia Institute. Sewage and wastewater treatment are as ongoing as the community they serve, but nuclear discharge is different. It sits, radioactive, long after the activity ends — making its management an issue of “temporality” wherein waste cleanup is never truly finished. The nuclear waste in Hanford can be harmful to the Columbia River watershed, and cleanup crews are currently working to preserve this historic town while keeping people safe in the process. Crane at Hanford Site managing trench of nuclear materials.

The U.S. Nuclear Waste Inventory, as cited in the study, “The Challenges of Temporality to Depollution & Remediation,” was erected to keep these communities from being forgotten. This Long-Term Stewardship Program realizes there is a problem of “permanence” in this type of waste management, and it’s critical to ensure future generations are equipped with the technical solutions to deliver perpetual care.

Future-Proofing a Community

“Remediation [of nuclear waste] becomes an exercise in shifting materials in space rather than eliminating harm altogether,” according to Carmella Gray-Cosgrove, author of the publication.

What it requires is a dedication to infrastructure, one that can both solve current circumstances and address their progression through time.

Future-proofing Hanford in this way wasn’t top of mind at the height of its nuclear production; plant managers at the time simply buried their waste in trenches, holes and even the Columbia River itself. But today, communities across North America know how to overcome these legacy issues: The Savannah River Site in Georgia, which broke ground for atomic testing in 1950, began successful radioactive waste treatment in 1988. This year, the plant was named a “green” building for outstanding performance in its use of energy, water and waste.

Initiatives that are radioactive in nature may not have been prepared for their future effects, but “atomic cities” like Hanford are now primed to manage hazardous refuse that was once dismissed as a short-term challenge. Learn how low-level radioactive waste properties are managed, stabilized and decommissioned today through three innovative nuclear solutions worldwide.

Image by Nuclear Regulatory Commission
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