The Weapons Complex: A Nuclear Network

550px-US_nuclear_sites_map.svgWhile learning about Hanford issues, you may hear reference to the “nuclear weapons complex.” It is important to understand that Hanford did not operate in isolation during its production days; it was part of an extensive network of sites that contributed to the production of nuclear fuel and the design and manufacturing of nuclear weapons. Likewise, Hanford is not the only site today that is undergoing extensive cleanup as a result of nuclear weapons production during World War II and the Cold War.

During production days, Plutonium from Hanford was sent to Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, where scientists designed the bomb used in the Trinity Test and later in the Fat Man bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan. Although to a much lesser extent than Hanford, LANL also has a legacy of radioactive and chemical waste in its soil and groundwater. Today, LANL is one of the largest employers in New Mexico. Bechtel and URS, two contractors at Hanford, are also contracted at LANL.

Another significant site in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina. SRS was built in the early fifties for the production of plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons. The site stopped producing plutonium in 1988. SRS has 49 underground tanks containing about 36 million gallons of waste, some of which have leaked into the tanks’ annuluses, a secondary containment space around the tank. The site is now home to the controversial MOX facility, which aims to repurpose surplus defense plutonium to provide fuel for commercial nuclear power.

Other critical components of the Nuclear Weapons complex are the geological repository sites where the Department of Energy permanently disposes of its nuclear waste, including waste from Hanford. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southern New Mexico is one such deep geological repository. Currently, operations at WIPP have been suspended after a fire and radiation leak that exposed workers to radiation. The Department of Energy’s Recovery Plan currently cites early 2016 as the planned date for reopening WIPP.

Another proposed geological repository is the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, a project famously opposed by Senator Harry Reid. The Department of Energy listed Yucca as one of five potential nuclear waste repositories in 1986 and began testing the site in the mid nineties. Yucca remains a very controversial project with an uncertain future.

As someone working on and learning about Hanford, it’s been helpful to learn about Hanford’s context in the larger system of nuclear weapons research and production, as well as nuclear waste transportation and disposal. There are many more sites in the weapons complex than I’ve listed here. For more reading on the weapons complex, check out this piece from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

by: Emily Bays

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