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Bechtel at OMSI: less than half the real story

OMSI's Hanford exhibit doesn't tell the whole story.

This article appeared previously in the August 2003 issue of The Portland Alliance.

Bechtel at OMSI: less than half the real story

"[there is] a general nuclear illiteracy in the USA, birthplace of the atomic bomb and center of the most well-developed nuclear industry in the world."
Rosalie Bertell, author, "No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth" (Written shortly after the April 26,1986 Chernobyl accident.)

By Joanne Oleksiak

An infant screams from across the room, children, alone and with parents in tow, climb on sturdy exhibits to punch lighted buttons, spin dials, squirm in chairs, and look at a life-sized cutaway view of a singleshell nuclear waste storage tank. Welcome to OMSI's exhibit on Hanford, as brought to you by...Bechtel.

Keeping the Public Informed

The Columbia River flows through the middle of the 560 square mile Hanford nuclear reservation in eastern Washington. In 1943, when Hanford was constructed as part of the Manhattan Project to extract plutonium for a new kind of nuclear weapon, the availability of water was essential both to cool the reactors and to dilute the toxicity of the chemical processes. The Columbia River also provided a convenient mode for flushing radioactive wastes. How soon, how much, and by what pathway radioactive and chemical contamination has reached our human environment is a question that the Department of Energy (which oversees Hanford) would rather not answer. At least, not answer with the whole truth.

Regardless of what nuclear facilities come and go at Hanford, (and in more than 50 years, reactors and processing plants have been built and decommissioned), it's the management of nuclear waste -- of every description -- that remains a major mission at the site. But the problem is not just the leaking nuclear waste tanks.

Hanford is widely understood as the most radioactive piece of real estate on the planet, and the most challenging nuclear waste clean-up project ever undertaken.

Bechtel Tells the Story

OMSI's Hanford exhibit resembles the old nuclear industry-promoting Hanford Science Center (once located in the DOE/RL office building in Richland, WA next to Hanford), and some cues from Walt Disney. The result is a display that views radiation simply as something that we are exposed to every day; especially if we fly, have dental crowns, or watch TV. Gee that can't be too bad, can it?

The "Radiation in our Lives" Display..."Even though you can't see it, radiation surrounds you."

Alpha, beta, and gamma rays. There's a choice of six radioactive objects to test with a Geiger counter. Just spin the dial and listen for the rapid clicks from the different sources:
-- A watch dial (glows in the dark) -- radium
-- Fiestaware (a broken dinner plate) with orange glaze -- uranium
-- Smoke detector -- americium
-- "Radioactive material" (in a small box) -- strontium
-- Lantern mantle -- thorium
-- Salt substitute -- potassium

Bechtel's (OMSI's) display does not mention that Fiestaware long ago stopped using their orange uranium-containing glaze (the broken plate was the object that produced the strongest reaction from the Geiger counter), nor does the display describe the tragic illnesses and deaths of the radium watch dial painters resulting from their work. And the disaster of decades of uranium mining in Native communities in the U.S. and Canada is forgotten.

What's missing is a little historical perspective.

No mention is made of the burden of living in an increasingly nuclear world, and the exposures to nuclear materials that we did not seek out, carefully weighing the risks and benefits. Yes, we must limit exposure to the sun and to unnecessary x-rays. But what about events beyond our control? What about nuclear accidents?

Three Mile Island, Chernobyl (Iodine 131 from that accident was detected right here in Portland), "ventings" of radioactive gases, dust, and particulates from the Nevada Test Site, "burps" of plutonium-containing dust from Hanford's nuclear weapons processing plants (not just during WWII production, or the Cold War, but as recently as the early-to-mid 1980s).

Then, at times despite massive public campaigns and citizen protests (Ban the Bomb), there have been deliberate releases into the environment: nuclear fallout from atmospheric testing, so-called "routine" and experimental (yes, on people living near the facility) releases at Hanford, nuclear submarines purposely sunk into the ocean (in 1968, off the coast of Delaware), sending satellites containing tiny nuclear reactors into space, and most inhumane of all, the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima (uranium bomb) and Nagasaki (a plutonium bomb, developed at Hanford).

***********************side bar******************

Hanford at the Half-life
(actual title of the exhibit and list of sponsors and advisors)

Supported by: US DOE's Office of River Protection, Bechtel National Inc., CH2M Hill Hanford Group Inc., Oregon Office of Energy Advisory Committee: John Britton, Paige Knight, Bryon Kidder, Sue Kuntz, Ken Niles, William Kinsella, Erik Olds, Doug Riggs

Special Thanks: Columbia River Exhibition of History Science & Technology (CREHST), Hanford Information Network, Hanford Watch and Lockheed Martin

***********************side bar*********************

And we are told that the releases were "well within acceptable limits."

As Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Director of the International Institute for Concern for Public Health, in Toronto, Canada, explains, "nuclear power countries all evoke 'international safety standards' to 'prove' that low level radiation exposure is harmless. Oddly enough, most nuclear accidents manage to have releases within these 'acceptable' levels of pollution ... the public accepts a higher level of ill health for the perceived benefits of the nuclear weapons and power industries. 'Within safe limits' simply means 'within the limits permitted to the national nuclear polluters' by the federal government."

Cancer is so prevalent that we hardly think about possible contributing causes, and the tobacco industry is an obvious and easy target these days. But what does it mean that every corner of our planet has been (and continues to be) exposed to man-made radioactive materials?

"Assurances that exposures are 'permissible' mean nothing, especially to those who know that all exposures to radiation are harmful. A 'permissible' brain damaged child is a tragedy for the parents, but it is also an indictment against a society that trades its children for its military and energy strategy," continued Dr. Bertell.

R.M. Sievert (the famous radiologist, who had supervised radiation therapy since 1926 at the Karolinska Institute), pointed out at an international meeting in 1950 that "there is no known tolerance level for radiation." A tolerance is a level below which there is no danger (sometimes called a threshold). Human willingness to handle radioactive material is basic to all military nuclear planning, Bertell states.

With OMSI's Bechtel Hanford exhibit we learn very little about the real health and environmental dangers of radioactive contamination, and discussion of the true scope of the nuclear waste quandary is neatly avoided.

The bottom line is that we have never stopped making more of the stuff! If built, a new generation of nuclear weapons will create more waste, and a continued reliance on nuclear power (in this country or abroad) means more spent fuel and equipment that will need storage -- away from human (or plant, or animal) contact -- essentially forever.

Who is Bechtel, anyway?

Bechtel Enterprises, headquartered in San Francisco, is a privately held firm and the world's largest engineering-construction company. Revenue for 2001 reached $13.4 billion (slightly down from 2000's figure of $15.1 billion, and $11.6 billion in 2002). Bechtel has been heavily involved in the U.S.'s post-WWII construction boom and the company is responsible for over 20,000 projects in 140 countries, with operations on all continents (except Antarctica).

Bechtel estimates that it has built 40 percent of U.S. nuclear capacity and 50 percent of nuclear power plants in the developing world. And Bechtel is still building nuclear reactors, including one in Qinshan, China.

Bechtel received a ten-year contract in December 2000 with the US Department of Energy (DOE), to design, build and start up waste treatment facilities at Hanford that will transform liquid radioactive waste into a stable glass form -- a process known as vitrification.

Family Values

A family-owned company founded in 1898, Bechtel Enterprises is headed by Riley P. Bechtel, CEO, who was appointed in March 2003 to be a member of President Bush's Export Council on how to create markets for American companies overseas. Riley Bechtel, the 104th wealthiest man in the world, also joins other top U.S. CEOs as part of the Business Roundtable to strategize on ways to influence policymakers.

Steven Bechtel, Jr. was once appointed (1970-73) to the Advisory Board of the U.S. Government Import Bank which provided major loans to countries which then financed Bechtel projects.

Bechtel Projects

These are just a few of the more notable Bechtel projects:

-- In Portland, Bechtel constructed the Airport MAX extension for Tri-Met.

-- Acquisition (in February 2001) of project to build a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

-- At the Nevada Test Site, Bechtel manages counter terrorist programs and other support of U.S. military defense and security efforts. Bechtel helps the government conduct sub-critical nuclear tests as well.

-- Bechtel built the San Onofre, California nuclear plant, on a major earthquake fault line and installed the seismic braces backwards -- meaning the braces will increase the impact of an earthquake rather than reduce it. Bechtel has also been sued by former employees of the plant for exposure to radiation.

-- Three Mile Island clean-up -- Bechtel was investigated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who found that Bechtel "improperly classified" modifications to the plant as "not important to safety" in order to avoid safety controls. In 1985, the NRC fined Bechtel for harassing and intimidating workers who complained about these lapses.

The company emphasizes in the display at OMSI that they are responsible for the cleanup of radioactive wastes at Hanford -- a giant undertaking. The OMSI education project conveniently puts them in the position of being a "good guy" -- environmentally concerned and working hard to remove a serious threat to the health of people in the Northwest.

As part of a multi-year contract with Bechtel National Inc. CH2M Hill will support the commissioning and operability of a waste vitrification plant at U.S. DOE's Hanford site. CH2M Hill has played a key role in the clean-up and decommissioning of the weapons production site since 1994. The firm is an integral part of Bechtel's environmental Restoration Contract Team at the Hanford Site, as well as the prime contractor responsible for storing, characterizing and retrieving Hanford tank waste for treatment in the vitrification facility.

Hanford's Facilities

Hanford is actually a complex composed of several large facilities on a single reservation. Major parts of Hanford are:

-- Columbia Generating Station (CGS, or WNP2) is a boiling water reactor, producing 1,200 megawatts of nuclear power. The station is operated by a Richland-based consortium of 16 public utilities known as Energy Northwest (formerly called Washington Public Power Supply System). The electricity is sold to the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the federal agency that sells power throughout the Northwest. WNP2 is the region's first and only operating commercial nuclear power plant, located several miles east of the Fast Flux Test Facility on the Hanford site. The plant has been plagued with frequent outages, high radiation levels, big operating costs and Nuclear Regulatory fines.

-- Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF). This has been on standby since 1993, at a cost to taxpayers of $40 million per year. The local nuclear industry wants a new mission to keep the plant going, as once the sodium coolant is drained, the plant cannot be restarted again. However, environmental groups hope this contributor to the nuclear waste problem will be decommissioned.

-- 100 Area. Spent nuclear fuel is stored at the K East Reactor site and in a new facility on Hanford's Central Plateau. A clump of grass with Geiger counts of 50 times background radiation was found near this area.

-- 200 Area. Most of the radioactive waste and chemicals used in the processing of reactor fuel for military production are stored in the 200 area (includes tank farms).

The B Reactor, which manufactured plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb is located here.

Other types of nuclear waste at Hanford

A wide variety of other types of "nuclear waste" are located on the Hanford Site. Operated by U.S. Ecology, "low-level waste disposal sites" hold commercially generated waste from 11 western and Rocky Mountain states. This includes waste from nuclear power plants, hospitals (e.g. medical isotopes), universities and private industry. It also includes:

-- Trojan nuclear power plant waste generated during the decommissioning of the plant is disposed at the U.S. Ecology site at Hanford, as well as Trojan's steam generators and pressurizer. The plant's reactor vessel was shipped by barge to Hanford in August 1999.

-- Other commercial nuclear reactor cores have been shipped by barge up the Columbia River to Hanford, including the Shippingport (Pittsburgh, PA) nuclear reactor core, in 1988.

-- Nuclear-powered submarine cores from decommissioned U.S. Navy nuclear submarines which have either served their time or have been cut due to strategic arms limitation agreements. Since 1986, the Oregon Office of Energy estimates (in a 2002 report) that between 6-10 reactor cores are brought to Hanford each year. Barges carry the reactor compartments (with spent fuel removed) up the Columbia River. By June 2002, 104 reactor compartments had been shipped.

Safety concerns at Hanford (just a few)

Hanford's safety record is far from spotless. Here's just a few safety concerns:

-- Toxic vapors from underground radioactive and chemical waste storage made workers ill at Hanford's so-called waste "farms" according to the Government Accountability Project (GAP). Ch2M Hill Group, (CHG) has admitted to over twenty confirmed exposures in 2002 alone, with many more unreported exposures likely. Despite workers' complaints to their managers, and to the DOE, adequate protective equipment was evidently never provided.

The illnesses, which continued for weeks, were serious enough to require medical attention. Raised red welts, rashes, burning nasal passages and nosebleeds, headaches, respiratory pain, stinging skin, and a metallic taste in the mouth were just some of the symptoms that workers experienced. (CH2MHill or CHG is a Portland-based company Bechtel subcontractor).

-- The Radio Activist Campaign (TRAC) reports that their sampling efforts along the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River (begun in 1983 in collaboration with Greenpeace under terms of an agreement with DOE/RL) have revealed evidence of "Hanford's still-secret production of Uranium233 for mini-nuclear (battlefield) weapons".

In 2001, TRAC found that sixty percent of the Hanford Reach and 7 out of 10 major salmon spawning grounds were contaminated with by-products from U233 production.

In 2002, TRAC discovered a previously unreported discharge pipe that may have been used to discharge radioactive waste directly into the Columbia River.

A November 2002 study by TRAC also tested deep rooted, arid land vegetation, in the 300 area at Hanford, (north of the KE reactor) to determine the adequacy of shallow waste burial as a clean up method. Samples included tumbleweed and rabbit brush, which draw water up from the desert soil through long tap roots that can extend deeper than 15 feet below grade. Clean-up efforts currently focus only on the top fifteen feet of soil.

TRAC's testing indicated the presence of strontium 90, cesium 137 and americium 241 in these plant samples. In other words, "deep-rooted plants are taking buried, radioactive contaminants up to the Hanford land surface and into the food chain."

-- The WNP2 (or Columbia Generating Station) nuclear power plant, experienced a "catastrophic failure of a large cast iron valve" that is part of the fire protection system. In 1999, a paper evaluating the incident was presented at a July 18-23, 1999, engineering conference in San Francisco. A Bechtel manager and three WPPSS managers compiled the study on this accident.

-- A radioactive powder was inhaled by three Hanford tank farm workers in June 2003. A "poof" of radioactive cesium powder was released from a hose that had not previously been identified as a hazard. 12 workers were tested, and three found to have been exposed.

Squeezing the Poor: Bechtel's International Reputation

Through subsidiaries and joint ventures in the US, Europe and (infamously) in South America, Bechtel is also involved with over 200 water and wastewater treatment plants. The privatization of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia resulted in exorbitant water prices -- as much as a 100-300 percent increase. Mass demonstations in Bolivia in opposition to the water system eventually forced the reversal of the contract. Bechtel responded by suing Bolivia, seeking $25 million in damages and future Investment Disputes (ICSID). A final decision is pending.

The Iraq connection

Bechtel has demonstrated greed, and a stunning lack of humanitarian concern, first in contributing to the development of weapons used in the Iraq war, then pushing the Bush government to go to war, and finally, by the enormous financial gains Bechtel will reap by "reconstructing" Iraq, without the Iraqi people's participation, and without help from international institutions like the United Nations.

Bechtel was awarded the $680 million, 18-month, Iraq construction contract through a secretive bidding process, which members of Congress had not seen beforehand, nor were able to exercise any oversight on the decision. Experts have said that this may be one of the biggest export bonanzas in history and could eventually be worth up to $100 billion.

Telling the truth

All of this could have been included in the Bechtel exhibit at OMSI. Of course, that would have meant tackling a powerful corporation that might exact revenge on a local museum. Like so many other cash-strapped institutions, the easier path to take is to turn a blind eye to the blemishes of the corporate sponsors and offer up a sanitized version of the truth to ticket-paying patrons. It may not be science or industry, but in the case of OMSI's Bechtel exhibit, it appears to be standard operating procedure.

Joanne Oleksiak is a long-time peace and anti-nuclear activist. She has recently worked on the Warfare State and on earlier articles about Hanford for The Portland Alliance.


A series of scathing articles about Bechtel's exploits

Bechtel's homepage

A good source for corporate wrongdoing

Oregon's official energy page

The official Hanford Web site

More anti-nuclear information

homepage: homepage: http://www.hanfordwatch.org