The Manhattan Project

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John Price's Interview

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John Price's Interview

John Price is an environmental manager who has been working on radioactive waste cleanup projects for more than 35 years. Currently, he is the Tri-Party Agreement Section Manager for the Washington Department of Ecology Nuclear Waste Program. In this interview, he discusses the Tri- Party Agreement and the role it plays in ensuring the cleanup of Hanford site. He also talks about the political and the technical problems the Department of Ecology, the US Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency face when trying to clean up the area.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 11, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Richland
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: Okay. I’m Cindy Kelly. It is September 11, 2018. I’m in Richland, Washington, and I have with me John Price. My first request is to please say your full name and spell it.

John Price: Sure. My name is John Price, J-o-h-n P-r-i-c-e. I am the Tri-Party Agreement Section Manager for the Washington Department of Ecology Nuclear Waste Program.

Kelly: Wow. That’s a mouthful.

Price: Sure.

Kelly: All right. Well, tell us, John, you’ve just mentioned you’ve been there for eight years?

Price: Eighteen years.

Kelly: Oh, I’m sorry, 18 years.

Price: Yeah, right.

Kelly: Exactly. Tell me, what, what brought you to being an environmental—are you a lawyer, environmentalist, shall we say?

Price: Sure. So, I’ve worked on radioactive waste cleanup projects mostly around the United States for more than 35 years. I’ve worked on projects in 17 different states. I was working in Ohio, and my wife, who is from the Seattle area, wanted to move back closer to family. Of course, Hanford was the closest radioactive waste project to Seattle. So, that’s what brought me back here.

Kelly: That’s fabulous. How is it that you’ve worked in 17 different states? Who were you working for?

Price: I mostly worked on Department of Energy projects. I worked on the uranium mill tailings cleanup. If you think about the nuclear fuel cycle, so Hanford is kind of in the middle of that cycle. There were uranium mines, which are an environmental problem today, and then the ore is taken to uranium mills. I worked on the cleanup of those mills and the mill tailings. I also worked at some DOE production facilities: the Mound site in Ohio, mostly worked on the Pinellas plant in Florida, and a couple of others.

I worked also on a private decommissioning cleanup. The Texas Instruments had bought a facility in Massachusetts that used to make fuel for the Navy, and they needed to terminate their Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. I worked on the cleanup of that as well. I did a few other things along the way as well.

Kelly: Just curious—I’m from Massachusetts. Where is that facility?

Price: Attleborough. So, it used to be Materials and Controls Corporation. They made Navy nuclear fuel, and that facility got transferred down to Lynchburg, Virginia. But Texas Instruments, when they bought from M&C, didn’t have a terminated license. Years later, they said, “Hey, we want to terminate our license.”

The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] said, “You’re not really done.” They had a radioactive waste landfill on the property and then they had three buildings that were still radioactively contaminated. We actually went into the buildings and cleaned up the inside of the buildings while workers were still manufacturing things. That was a pretty interesting project.

Kelly: Very interesting. My goodness. Where did you get this expertise? What kind of training or background did you have?

Price: Yeah. I have a degree in hydrology, so study of water. I thought I would work on supply wells and that sort of thing, and quickly got into the cleanup business and I’ve been doing that ever since. My background was in groundwater, and then pretty soon I got into project management. Once you get into project management, you’re dealing with soil cleanup and groundwater cleanup and then building cleanup, and then also waste management. Pretty soon, you learn other things.

I think that’s probably common to a lot of people. They start out as an engineer or scientist, and get into project management and do the whole spectrum of things. Of course, I became a regulator, which is a whole different thing entirely. 

Kelly: That was your segue way 18 years ago. Tell us about, what is the Department of Ecology’s mission?

Price: Yeah. The simple thing I tell people is, regulation is kind of a basic principle of government. I guess the underlying philosophy is the kind of the theory of the commons is that resources are held in common for all citizens. A polluter is using more than their fair share of the resources, so the way you kind of balance that out is you have state or federal regulations that put some limits on those polluters so that they’re not using up more than their fair share of the resources.

Basically, a regulator, including the State of Washington, is helping to make sure that the resources that are held in common are clean or kept clean or cleaned up, so that everybody can enjoy the use of them. That’s really what we do.

When schoolchildren ask me what I do or citizens, you want to make it real simple. I say, “DOE prepares plans for work. We check their plans. They do work according to the plans. We check their work to make sure they’re doing it right. They write reports on the work they did. We check the reports to make sure they’re accurate. And then, we go onto to the next decision.” That’s kind of how regulation works, in really simple terms.

Kelly: Tell me about the Tri-Party Agreement. What’s the history there?

Price: The Tri-Party Agreement is actually—I like to think of it as really three different agreements. It’s a Superfund, which is the federal cleanup law. It’s a Superfund federal facility agreement. There’s a federal executive order that said, “Federal facilities have to negotiate federal facility agreements with EPA.”

It’s also a consent order with the state, because the state administers hazardous waste laws. In 1992, importantly, Congress passed a law—which is really important—that most people don’t pay attention to, the Federal Facility Compliance Act of 1992. Congress said that it was okay for the Department of Energy and other federal facilities to store radioactive mixed-waste longer than a year, as long as they were in compliance with a consent order.

That’s one of the really important purposes of the Tri-Party Agreement is, to be a consent order between the state and Department of Energy for management of waste. Those are two agreements: the federal facility agreement and a consent order.

And then, finally, the TPA [Tri-Party Agreement] is what I call a get-along agreement, because DOE, Ecology, EPA have overlapping authorities and responsibilities. We could be in conflict with each other all the time if we didn’t have a get-along agreement that says, “Here’s how we’re going to do our work. We’ll agree to do things in a certain way, even though we may both have authority or responsibility over something. We’ve got some rules that we don’t get in each other’s way.”

Kelly: How would you grade the behaviors of the three departments over the last two decades you’ve been involved? You think it’s worked?

Price: Yeah. Locally, I think it works really well. I think the regulators and DOE have a really good working relationship. Really, the overwhelming impact on the Hanford cleanup is the federal appropriation, because that really keeps the local DOE from carrying out the milestones in the Tri-Party Agreement according to schedule.

There’s not a really good answer to that. It’s kind of a classic constitutional dilemma, because Ecology really can go to a federal court or a state board and get them to order DOE to do some work. But a court can’t order the Congress to appropriate the money to do the work. It’s really kind of a dilemma.

The Department of Energy works for the president, the court is another branch, and then the legislature is another branch. They don’t have to all be on the same page, and usually they’re not. That’s really kind of the big problem is getting the appropriations to do the work in a timely manner and in the sequence it really makes work, makes sense.

Kelly: You’re like everyone else, a bit hamstrung in meeting your ambition sometimes if the money is not there.

Price:   Yeah.

Kelly: But how has that experience been? It seems like there’s been a lot of money.

Price: It’s a huge amount of money. If you go back and look at the Congressional hearings back in the late 1980s, that was one of the main concerns of the legislature back then, Senator John Glenn and others. They passed laws, including the Federal Facility Compliance Act of 1992. You can look at their testimony and questions. They were really concerned about whether the appropriations would be there to carry out the mission.

At the time, the estimated cleanup of the whole Department of Energy complex was much lower. It was on the order—less than $100 billion, which was thought to be a huge number at the time. That number keeps climbing, even though a great amount of work has been done.

I think people have always known that the national will and the appropriations to get the work done would be a problem. And in fact, that’s proven to be true. Really what we do from year-to-year is kind of pick our battles and try to prioritize what are the most important things, and try and focus on getting those things done.

I think the other factor, too, for the Department of Ecology is, we have some mandatory duties that we can’t ignore. Administering the Federal Hazardous Waste Management laws through a state-authorized program, we can’t ignore the requirements to do certain things, even if the appropriations aren’t there. That really forces Ecology to issue orders and to go to court. That’s kind of been something we’ve been doing every four or five years on a repeated basis.

Kelly: What has been the response of Congress when there’s court order? Has this sort of been a good lever to get more money appropriated?

Price: Partially. It’s made certain things more of a priority. Back in 2010, Ecology and the State of Washington really came up with an administrative order and then settled with DOE for the tank waste. That tank waste consent decree has prioritized appropriations for that part of the Hanford cleanup. But certainly, DOE hasn’t gotten all the money that they needed. It’s been somewhat effective, but not completely effective.

Kelly: Tell us about how things have changed. You started 18 years ago. Was the site partially cleaned up at that point? What was that, 2000, the year 2000?

Price: Yeah. We’ve really come to a pivot point, I think, in the Hanford cleanup. There’s really kind of the early days from when the Tri-Party Agreement was signed, even going back before that. If you go to the mid-‘80s, that was when the Downwinder situation became known, and the Spokane Spokesman Review had a lot of media attention on Hanford, and the declassification of records came about. The early years, I think from about the early 1980s up until the late 1990s, people were still trying to figure out what’s going on at Hanford, and really trying to classify and index and understand all the problems. There’s a lot of great work done to identify what the problems were.

I think from about 2000 or so, maybe the mid-1990s until about 2010, there was really a big focus on cleaning up the Columbia River Corridor. I think that’s been a tremendous success. I mentioned earlier, I give Dennis Faulk a lot of credit for that.

When we started in 2000, there were 50—50!—radioactive waste burial grounds just along the Columbia River Corridor, and there’s another 25 in the middle of Hanford. But out of those 50 along the Columbia River Corridor, all but one have been cleaned up now, and that’s a huge success. Because in the long-term, leaving radioactive waste in burial grounds less than half a mile from the Columbia River—and then what’s a national monument now—would not have been a good idea. In the long-term, people and animals would’ve gotten into them, and geologic processes would’ve taken place. Eventually, some of that waste would’ve gotten out into the environment. That’s been a huge success.

I think the other huge success is, most of the land surface along the Columbia River Corridor is suitable for unrestricted surface use. At the surface, you can do pretty much anything you want to do. Conceivably, people could actually have a house there and farm. Although we don’t think that’s going to happen, it would be safe to do that. There’s just a couple of exceptions to that. The reactor buildings themselves, you can’t do anything you want around those, so those are going to sit for another 50 years. 

Interestingly, there are some orchard-impacted lands from before Hanford. The farmers used to spray a lead-arsenate spray, and there’s about five square miles of that land that’s contaminated with lead and arsenic today. That’s not safe to do anything you want.

The 300 Area cleanup, pretty close to Hanford, was cleaned up to an industrial standard. You could actually build condos there and live in condos in the 300 Area. It’s zoned business research park, I think, which would allow that kind of use. You wouldn’t want people having a garden plot in there or planting their own trees and mowing the lawn and so on. But it’s a pretty safe cleanup for most of the River Corridor. That’s really an impressive accomplishment.

Kelly: I’m interested—you wouldn’t want people growing trees? Would the trees be damaged, or is it the fruit of the trees you’re worried about?

Price: No, it’s just people getting into contact with the ground. If you dig a three-foot hole and there’s contamination, people could conceivably get exposed to that. But if people are just playing in a park that is grassed and just coming and going from their condo, they’re not really in contact with the soil. The 300 Area would actually be safe to do that, which is really an impressive cleanup.

Kelly: I remember seeing all those buildings. It’s 152 of them removed or something?

Price: Yes. That’s, that’s really an impressive cleanup. The River Corridor has been a huge success.

Kelly: What are the big remaining challenges then?

Price: I kind of mentioned Hanford has come to a pivot point in the cleanup. There’s been a big focus on actually what I call “cleanup.” Digging up contaminated soil, knocking down contaminated buildings, putting those in the big lined landfill in the center of Hanford, pumping groundwater out of the ground, treating it to remove contamination. That’s what I call “cleanup.”

At this point, more than half, probably two-thirds of the remaining Hanford mission is actually managing waste. That’s the tank waste, processing that and disposing of it. There’s 20,000 containers of solid waste, radioactive, some of it containing transuranic elements [elements with an atomic number greater than 92] where it has to be disposed of down in New Mexico in the deep geologic repository. That’s a lot of waste management to be done, and that’s different than digging up soil and treating groundwater. That’s the bigger part of the Hanford mission now is just managing that waste.

Kelly: Is that waste in the canyons, or where is the waste?

Price: The transuranic waste, there are over 8,000 containers, so think of drums and boxes, sitting in buildings at Hanford. There’s another 12,000 containers that are buried underground at Hanford still.

Kelly: Deliberately buried?

Price: Deliberately buried. It’s what’s called retrievably-stored waste. When the category of transuranic waste was created in 1970, there was no location to dispose of that waste. Today, there’s the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [WIPP] in New Mexico, which is the salt mine, basically, 2000 feet below the ground surface.

But at the time, there was no place to dispose of transuranic waste. Transuranic waste that was generated at Hanford during the production mission, and then transuranic waste from other Department of Energy facilities, was brought here. Because there was no place to dispose of it, it was buried underground to shield it from people and basically keep it in a safe, secure location. That waste was sitting and waiting for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to be conceived and built.

Today, it waits to be retrieved if it hasn’t been retrieved already, because it’s not supposed to be disposed of in shallow land burial. It’s waiting. It’s retrievably stored, is what we call it.

Kelly: It’s curious about the transuranic waste. I guess is it part of the statute that it can’t sit in a low retrievable—

Price: Yeah. The statute actually says that transuranic waste above a certain level can only be disposed of in a deep geologic repository—unless there is a variance, and nobody’s ever granted a variance. The idea, I think, is transuranic elements have a really long half-life, so they’re going to be around for hundreds of thousands of years. The concept, I think, is, it’s safer to isolate them deep below the ground surface where they’re not going to get into the environment any time soon. That’s why transuranic waste—and then, of course, high-level waste also—is supposed to get a high-level, deep geologic repository.

Kelly: Just because we’re going to be using this for high schools and educating, would you like to talk about what transuranic means?

Price: Yeah. Let me talk about what transuranic waste is. When there’s a nuclear reaction in a nuclear reactor, some of the atoms split in half and that gives off a lot of energy. There’s also neutrons floating around, and some of the uranium absorbs those neutrons. When it absorbs those neutrons, it turns them into different elements. It turns them into bigger elements like plutonium and americium. Those are called transuranic elements, because they are above uranium.

Kelly: On—

Price: On the periodic table, yeah, thank you.

Kelly: Good. What properties do they have that may be of concern?

Price: The big concern with transuranic elements usually is if people would inhale them, because then the elements sit inside their body and give off alpha radiation, which is very damaging inside people. Outside people, it’s not that big a deal, because your skin would actually shield it from going into your body. But inside your body, it hits sensitive organisms [misspoke: organs] and tissue and is a problem.

Alpha radiation generally-or I should say the transuranic elements are interesting, because, generally, they don’t have a lot of penetrating radiation, which is gamma radiation, or you can think of X-rays. But they do give off alpha radiation, which is very damaging inside your body. Sometimes you’ll see pictures of people holding, actually, buttons of plutonium, or you can hold uranium in your hand. You’ll see people with a glove on and you’ll see the plutonium wrapped in plastic, and that’s just so it doesn’t get inside people. But it’s perfectly safe to hold it in your hand, as long as you don’t have skin contact or any way for that element to get inside your body.

Kelly: Have you held a button of plutonium?

Price: I have not, no. I’ve just seen the pictures.

Kelly: I hear it’s warm.

Price: Yeah. I’ve heard that, too, yeah.

Kelly: Exactly. We were talking about the pivot point. Now you’re managing waste. Most of this waste is located in what area, the transuranic—

Price: Yeah. We’ve done a great job cleaning up the Columbia River Corridor, so we’re really left with the central part of Hanford, and that’s where the big chemical processing plants were. That’s where the single-shell tanks are, and the double-shelled tanks that manage the 53 to 56 million gallons of tank waste. That’s also where the solid waste is stored, in a complex of 40-plus buildings.

That’s where the cleanup and the waste management is to be done, in the center of Hanford, which, fortunately, is about 10 miles from the Columbia River, which is good for everybody, I think.

Kelly: How large is this? Is this the central plateau?  

Price: This is the central plateau, so it’s really only about 10 square miles. Hanford originally was, I think, about 585 square miles. If you go back to when Hanford was built, they didn’t really know a lot about nuclear operations or radiation safety. They intentionally built the nuclear processing facilities and the reactors and other things about 10 miles apart from each other. They had some duplicate facilities as well. The idea was, if they had a nuclear accident at one facility and there was a spread of radiation, it would basically dissipate by the time it got to the redundant facility or other location. It wouldn’t keep them from continuing operations at the other location. That’s why they had so much land.

A lot of Hanford was never used for the nuclear operations, and that’s why it’s really a great area today. It’s preserved as a national monument, because a lot of the habitat is intact and is pretty unusual for Washington State. That’s kind of a roundabout way of saying how big Hanford is.

Kelly: Can you explain, because I think people might not be able to distinguish between a National Monument and who manages that, and the national park, the [Manhattan Project] National Historical Park.

Price: Yeah. There’s some pretty interesting overlaps of land here at Hanford. In 2000, President [Bill] Clinton proclaimed the Hanford Reach National Monument, and that encompasses a half mile inland on the Hanford operating side of the Columbia River. It also picked up some pieces of Hanford that were already being managed by U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service as the Saddleback National Wildlife Refuge. There’s the national monument.

It’s unusual in a couple of ways. One is, it’s the only national monument that’s managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service instead of the National Park Service, and that was done because U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was already managing the Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.

The other thing that’s interesting is that U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service technically, I guess, doesn’t own the land. They’re managing the land under a permit from the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s really kind of a little bit different situation.

Kelly: What is the goal, in terms of fishing and swimming and recreation? What kind of uses are envisioned or possible?

Price: The Columbia River today is totally okay for fishing, for swimming, for boating, anything you want to do in it. That’s kind of one the paradoxes of Hanford cleanup in how we kind of struggle to explain the cleanup to people, because the Columbia River is okay today. That’s what people worry about. But if we don’t do anything with the tank waste and some of the other problems, then perhaps 500 years from now, there would be very serious problems. 

It’s really hard to get people motivated to want to spend a lot of money and work really hard on problems that don’t have an impact on them or even their children or their grandchildren. You’re really talking about the 7th generation down the line is the one that we’re protecting. That’s really, you know, a big challenge to explain to people, and get them motivated to want to do the cleanup. 

Kelly: What are some of the choices and decisions that have to be made now for the future? 

Price: The tank waste is the biggest challenge. It’s an interesting kind of paradox in a way, too. Because the long-lived radionuclides are technetium-99 and iodine, and those persist in the environment for a long time. They’ll be around for a long time. They are really mobile in the environment. But they’re not what make the tank waste really hot or radioactive. What makes it really hot or radioactive is cesium and strontium, which will decay away in 500-plus years.

One of the big challenges as we’re looking at the tank waste treatment mission is making sure that the technetium and iodine gets caught up and immobilized in glass, so that it’s not moving through the environment 500 years from now. There’s a big impact to the environment if we don’t control those.

That’s really a big motivator for getting that tank waste treated and in a safer form. And getting a lot offsite and sent to the deep geologic repository, wherever that’s going to be someday, because it doesn’t exist today for high-level waste.

Kelly: Are these materials volatile, or you just worry about them in liquid or solid form?

Price: You probably know about the challenges for workers dealing with the tank waste. There are, in addition to the radioactive materials, there’s also organic chemicals and then other chemicals added to the tank waste to help keep it in a stable form in the tanks. 

Technetium-99, which I mentioned, is a big concern. It actually has some volatility, even though it’s a metal. It’s really challenging to capture that in the waste treatment plant and make sure it’s converted into a solid, safe form.

These are, some of these are really technical issues, and that’s one of the challenges, I think. We go out and talk to, you know, elementary schools, to high schools, to colleges a lot. It’s really challenging to try and take the really complicated technical subjects of Hanford and convert them to understandable forms, where people can understand what their choices are and what the issues are, and so that they can get involved with Hanford if that’s the issue they chose to get involved with.

Kelly: What do you tell people? This is perfect. We have a lot of young people who go to our website, and teachers assign people to listen to your interview. The more that you can do to help a younger audience with some of these issues.

Price: Sure. One of the things we haven’t talked about so far is the involvement of tribal governments at the Hanford site.

There are three tribal governments that have what are called ceded rights to the Hanford site. Those are the Yakama Nation in Washington State, the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation—and they’re located in Pendleton, Oregon—and then the Nez Perce Tribe—and they’re located out of Lapwai, Idaho.

When those different tribal governments signed the treaties that they signed in 1855 and 1859, they got reservation lands out of that, but they also gave away or ceded away their historic ranges. They roamed anywhere from up to Canada and into Canada, down to Nevada, east into Montana, all the way over to the coast of Washington to trade and hunt and so on.

They gave away huge tracts of land that they historically roamed over. In giving that away, they retained certain rights. They always had rights to do certain things, and the treaties recognized that they still had the rights to do those things. Those included hunting and gathering, fishing at usual custom places, and doing some other things.

Hanford actually lies within the ceded lands of those tribal governments. There isn’t a lot of open land left in Washington State or in the United States. A lot of its managed by the federal government. But the Hanford site is very attractive for certain things, both religious practices and hunting and gathering and fishing, because it’s undeveloped, and there’s some really good habitats. One of our goals is to try and clean up as much of Hanford as we can, so that those tribal governments can exercise their treaty rights again.

That’s especially important to Washington, because we are in really a permanent partnership with the Yakima Nation, because we co-manage or share resources throughout Washington State. Managing the fisheries, managing the water resources, we do that in conjunction with the Yakima Nation. We also have signed accords with the Umatilla Indians and also with the Nez Perce tribe. So, getting the Hanford reservation back to a state where those tribal governments can use it again is really important to the State of Washington.

Kelly: Would that use be exclusive of other people’s use, or how would that work? 

Price:  No, it wouldn’t be exclusive. You have to look at there being a national monument now. Certainly, there’s going to be uses for all citizens of that national monument and the national wildlife refuge. I think the treaties have some language along the lines of, “Using resources in common with other citizens.” I think there’s a recognition that the tribal governments certainly have some rights that are specifically written down in the treaties that are very special to tribal peoples. But I think there is an expectation that they’ll be using the lands in common with other citizens.

Kelly:  I’m just envisioning that there may be some conflict as people want to go camping, and it happens to be a sacred site. There probably have to be some working out of what areas are special to the native people that need protections.

Price: Sure. The Department of Energy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have an obligation to obey certain federal laws for protecting cultural and religious sites. They’ve been doing that for a long time. In managing lands in the future, they’d certainly have to do that. Even if the tribal governments weren’t here, those federal agencies would still have to protect cultural resources. They’ll continue doing that in the future while the tribal governments are using the land for whatever they are doing on it.

Kelly: Tell us about the Arid Lands Ecology area. 

Price: As I mentioned, Hanford had a huge area of 585 square miles, and a lot of that wasn’t used for nuclear processing operations. But it was used as kind of a buffer between the Hanford operations and citizens around Hanford, and also kept people from looking down into the Hanford site. When Hanford was created, also, there was concern about enemy airborne attacks on Hanford. Initially, there were anti-aircraft artillery and then later on, there were missile sites on the Hanford site.

On the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, it was really a pretty clean area, no nuclear processing. But there were about seven kind of industrial contamination areas. For example, there was a landfill associated with the Army barracks by the missile site. They would just throw their trash and other stuff in there. I think there were just seven or eight small areas of kind of industrial contamination on the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve. Those end up getting cleaned up, so that area is really a clean area.

Unfortunately, one of the big environmental or ecology impacts at Hanford now is the recurrence of fire. Parts of Hanford have burned every four or five years, and that’s really been devastating to the natural vegetation, including on the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve. That’s really kind of a tragedy. That area was preserved because of the sage, shrub steppe habitat, and a lot of that has burned off and is just not in the state it was 20 years ago. That’s really unfortunate.

Kelly: Are these just natural fires?

Price: I think some of them naturally start from lightning strikes. Others, somebody threw a cigarette out of their car, or something else happened. You know, somebody parked their car in grass and it started a fire. However, it starts, the areas have burned.

Kelly: Isn’t cheatgrass not indigenous and it’s very, very dry and flammable? 

Price: Yeah. Hanford has some unique attributes. I mentioned President Clinton declared the national monument in 2000. He recognized not only the Columbia River, but Hanford has some sand dunes and some unique habitat along the steep basalt cliffs.

The Nature Conservancy did a couple of biodiversity studies, I think one in the late ‘90s and one in the early 2000s. They found some species that are unique to science, meaning they were never found anywhere else in the world, and also some species that are unique to Washington—they don’t occur anywhere else in Washington, except at Hanford. That’s because of the unique habitat of the sand dunes and then the steep basalt cliffs. President Clinton recognized that biodiversity in his proclamation of the Hanford Reach National Monument.

It’s been really important to try and preserve the habitat at Hanford. Unfortunately, the wildfires that have burned parts of Hanford have burned off a lot of the native vegetation. Cheatgrass, which is an invasive species, covers a lot of Hanford today.

But there are some efforts to look at reclaiming that land. I have worked a little bit with an individual with the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation, Dr. Steven Link, and he’s been looking at some of the shrub steppe plants and which ones can outcompete cheatgrass. He actually told me a couple of weeks ago that he thinks he has a couple of plants that he thinks he can propagate in among the cheatgrass, and it actually will come up and outcompete the cheatgrass. People are working at that, but it’s a problem that certainly isn’t solved yet.

Kelly: What about wildlife? What kind of wildlife is there out on the reservation?

Price: Yeah. I think Hanford’s well-known for its elk herd. There’s been over 600 elk at times in the herd, and the elk are smart enough to know that they can’t get shot at on the Hanford site. They will actually come onto the Hanford site when the snow falls and they need lower elevation. Of course, there’s a great water source, too, with the Columbia River.

There’s a lot of elk. You see lots of other animals as well. Badgers, there’s a lot of badgers. Coyotes and so on. The birds are big deal also, although they’ve not been doing as well with the burning of the sagebrush. There’s a couple of species that do really well with sagebrush. We don’t have any sage grouse on Hanford anymore. There are still some pretty close to Hanford on the U.S. Army Yakima Training Center.  

There’s also a sage sparrow and a sage thrush, I think. There are some species that do really well with sagebrush and not elsewhere. Hanford has been one of the last three big, intact pieces of sagebrush in Washington State, the Yakima Training Center being one of the others, and then also some of the land up in northern Washington, in Douglas County. It’s a pretty important habitat for Washington State.   

Kelly: How about the fabled salmon, how are they doing? 

Price: The salmon are doing really well. There actually are   mon in the Hanford Reach than before Hanford was built. We think that’s because the dams were built. Through the Columbia River through the Hanford Reach, is what we call the last free-flowing, non-tidal stretch of the main-stem Columbia. It really is the last place that salmon can spawn on the main Columbia River. They’ve congregated, and there’s more salmon nests in the Hanford Reach now than there was before 1943, which is really pretty amazing.

Kelly: Wow. So, the salmon, do people go out and fish there, or is it protected because it’s a spawning area?

Price: No. People do go there and fish. October is pretty amazing. You can go up to the upstream end of Hanford, and there’s almost like a village or a little town of campers up there for people that park their campers and put their boats in the river. I don’t think you could actually step from boat-to-boat, but if you go out in the main area of the Reach during fishing season, you just see boats all around you. It’s really kind of fun to go up there, and you can see people pulling in 30- and 40-pound salmons, which is really a big fish.

Kelly: When you say Hanford, are you talking about where the Hanford camp was around the B Reactor?

Price: No, no. People park their campers upstream of the Hanford reservation. They go up where the highway crosses the Columbia River. The Hanford Reach is downstream from there, and it actually runs through the Hanford site. They do fish down there, in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River.

Kelly: They put their boats in around the Vernita Bridge?

Price: They put their boats in at the Vernita Bridge or down at the White Bluffs boat launch. They can go upstream from the White Bluffs boat launch, or downstream from Vernita, and that’s where the salmon are.

I also have kayaked down the Hanford Reach, which is really a neat experience. You can kayak from the Vernita Bridge down to White Bluffs. Takes about three and a half hours. You don’t see a lot of people, except in fishing season. The water flows really rapidly, although there’s only one true rapids, Coyote Rapids. But it’s really a fun ride. You don’t have to paddle much, and it’s  really scenic. Except for the nuclear reactors on one shore, it really looks like a wild and scenic river.

Kelly: The percentage of Hanford that was used at any time for the reactors and chemical separation processes and the research is still only 10%, or less than 10% of the total land area. Is that correct?

Price: Yeah. If you think about how Hanford is laid out, there were three main areas. In the 300 Area, they machined and fabricated uranium fuel. Then they took the uranium fuel out to the 100 area and put it into the reactors. And then, they took the irradiate fuel to the 200 Area and extracted the plutonium and uranium.

Those different areas, the 300 Area was probably only about a square mile. If you look at the reactor area, six reactor areas with nine reactors, that’s probably only about 10 square miles total. The 200 Area is about 10 square miles. The really heavily-used areas is probably 20, 25 square miles with some outlying contamination areas. But that’s a pretty small percentage of Hanford, absolutely, out of 586 square miles.

Kelly: So, it’s 5%.

Price: Yeah, exactly.

Kelly: Yeah. Oh, that’s great. How do you explain the fact that Hanford’s often labeled the biggest Superfund site in the country?

Price: That’s an interesting tag. I’ve heard it called “the most contaminated site in America.” I’m not sure that’s completely true, for a couple of reasons.

One is, if you think about the Nevada Test Site where they set off all those above-ground and underground nuclear explosions, I think the area and the contamination’s a lot higher. Nobody’s ever going to go in and use that area again. If you think about some of the nonnuclear Superfund sites, and you read about them—I’ve done that, I’ve done that working on kind of the science of dealing with complicated sites—there’s some really nasty cleanup sites all around the country.

But I think one of the big things is, radioactivity has a stigma about it that sometimes chemicals don’t have. People are really afraid of radiation or radioactivity, because I think in people’s minds, they associated it with nuclear bombs. There really is a stigma about radiation that there maybe isn’t always with other chemicals. I think that’s why Hanford gets a lot of attention.

Kelly: You’re saying it may not be deserved.

Price: There’s just more to it than it. That’s an easy tag, the most contaminated site. How do you measure that? I don’t know. It’s a tag that I use, certainly, but it’s difficult to kind of put a number on that or kind of compare it to other sites.

Kelly:  Well, taking your narrative, which I think this is interesting to think about an inflection point in the cleanup history.

Price: Yes.

Kelly: You talked about that, and would you say now that you’re looking at sort of managed contamination or managed waste? How do you think about this going forward? Where does this inflection point lead us? 

Price: Sure. One thing I always come back to is the dollars. It’s kind of hard to get a number on how much money has been spent at Hanford, because there’s kind of two parts to Hanford.

One is, DOE is running a nuclear operation. If they were not doing any cleanup at all, if they were not processing any waste at all, they’d still be spending over a billion dollars a year. Because they have radioactive waste in tanks, and they have the chemical processing buildings. Those are nuclear facilities, and they have requirements for operating nuclear facilities. Doing nothing at all, they have to spend over a billion dollars a year, so there’s kind of that aspect of it.

People sometimes ask me, “How much of the cleanup is done? How much is ahead?” Given that’s it hard to get your hands around how much cleanup has been done versus how just operations has been done, maybe $30 billion has been spent on cleanup so far, and the number we have to finish Hanford is over $100 billion. When we put out our next report on the Hanford cleanup project in January, it will probably be close to $150 billion. If you compare 30 to 50, maybe we’re 20% done, 30% done. That’s kind of one metric to things.

The other thing I think about a lot—and we talked about this, as far as the stigma of radiation—just a little bit of contamination off the Hanford site, or even on the Hanford site, is a big deal. An example I like to give is, a few years ago, some radioactive rabbits were caught on the Hanford site. It’s not unusual for animals to get contaminated with radioactivity. There’s radioactive wasps that pick up water that’s radioactively contaminated, and they build their nests out of it with radioactive mud. Birds get contaminated  and so on.

But some radioactive rabbits were caught. I got a phone call from a newspaper in China, and they wanted to know if it was true that we had giant radioactive, man-eating rats. It was a newspaper of over a million circulation in Shanghai. We explained the facts to them, and they wrote a page-long article about Hanford based on that incident. That’s kind of the weight that contamination carries. It’s not unusual for us to get calls from around the country or from foreign countries about what’s going on at Hanford.

Recently, with the collapse of Tunnel #1 at the PUREX [plutonium-uranium extraction] Plant, we definitely got calls from all around the country about what was going on at Hanford, was it a problem.

I’ll just give you a few more examples. When, you know, the Fukishima accident happened in Japan, the State of Washington was monitoring debris that washed up on the Washington coast, and letting people know whether there was contamination or not—which there wasn’t, or it wasn’t significant. People really track radioactive contamination. They track it as an issue on a global and national basis, for sure. People get really concerned. 

In the past, there have been occasional incidents with contamination getting off the Hanford site. People get really concerned about that, and that’s probably my biggest concern, too, because of the stigma of off-site contamination.

I live four miles from the Hanford site, so for me, the cleanup is very personal, because I live very close to Hanford. I’m not one of these state regulators that is in the state capitol and dealing with a problem that’s 100 miles away. I live right by Hanford and I kayak in the river, and so on. It’s really important to me on a personal basis as well.

Kelly: Living in close proximity to it, your concern—would it be groundwater or dust? What kinds of ways do these contaminants transport?

Price: We’ve done a really great job cleaning up the groundwater along the Columbia River. A few years ago, we set a goal to stop contamination going into the Columbia River and we’ve achieved that goal.

There is a lot of contamination still in the central part of Hanford. I don’t know what the number is today. It might be somewhere between 30 and 50 square miles—that’s square miles of groundwater contamination that still has to be cleaned up. It will decades to do that. But I’m pretty happy with where we’re at, on the groundwater contamination.

We’ve also cleaned up the land surface along the Columbia River, where it should be suitable for unrestricted surface use. But there’s over a thousand locations in central Hanford where waste has been intentionally disposed or spilled or leaked. Some of those near the ground surface. If that contamination isn’t managed and cleaned up eventually, then you have incidents of radioactive tumbleweeds or radioactive animals. I’m not really concerned about the impact on human health or environment, so much as the stigma that people get really concerned about that.

The paradox of Hanford is, if we don’t do anything about the tank waste, it may not impact us directly for a few years, but the seventh generation is going to have to deal with that at really high levels. It’s important for intergenerational equity that we do the cleanup and don’t pass a radioactive legacy down to our children’s children’s children.

Kelly: The technetium and the iodine pieces of this mix of radioactive material—why don’t you explain the difference there? 

Price: Yeah. Technetium and iodine are in the tank waste, and those are two things that are mobile in the environment. What do I mean by mobile in the environment? Some radioactive chemicals, as they move through the soil, will be absorbed by the soil and they don’t move any farther? 

Other things don’t bind to the soil very well. They’ll move down to the groundwater, and they’ll move through the groundwater to river or wherever. So, technetium and iodine are a couple of those things that will move through the environment. It’s really important to tie those up in an immobile form. That’s one of the things that’s important to think about.

You talked about what concerns me living close to Hanford. I think one of the biggest concerns for a lot of people right now is what’s called the 324 building. That’s a building that’s less than 1,000 feet from the Columbia River. It’s only four miles from my house, and it’s a location where they have what were called “hot cells.”

Hot cells were rooms, basically, with a double window, so there’d be two planes of perhaps leaded glass. There would be two panes of leaded glass, with some mineral oil in between them. The mineral oil would provide shielding to the radioactivity. Scientists and engineers could manipulate it. If you think about robotic arms, they could move things around inside that room, really radioactive things, and watch it through the shielded windows.

One of the hot cells in the 324 building leaked into the soil underneath the building. The levels of radioactivity are so high that if you could get to that location—and it’s under a building, so you can’t actually walk up there and stand on it—but if you could walk up there and stand on it, it would be immediately lethal to you. It’s really important to get that contaminated soil cleaned up.

The way that’s going to be done is, they’re going to put remotely-operated manipulator arms inside the hot cell. They’re going to go through the bottom of the cell, bring the soil up into the cell, fill it with concrete until that contamination is stabilized. And then, they’ll cut the building up into pieces. Those pieces will be taken to central Hanford and put into the big, double-lined landfill. That’s how that waste will be taken care of.

That’s a big concern to a lot of people, because it’s difficult work being done through remote manipulators. The levels of radiation are really high. It’s only less than 1,000 feet from the Columbia River. I think a lot of people are really concerned about the 324 building right now.

Kelly: Is that at the top of the priority list at this point?

Price: I think it’s at the top of the priority list for a lot of people. The contamination is not mobile, fortunately, because if it was in the soil 1,000 feet from the Columbia River and it was moving to the Columbia River, that’d be a big concern.

It’s not mobile, but that’s an example of something you don’t want to leave there for the next 50 years. Because the tendency with any waste site or cleanup site, whether it’s Hanford or anywhere else, is after five or 10 or 15 years, people kind of forget about it. That’s kind of the lesson we’ve learned in the past from sites like Love Canal is, if you stabilize contamination and then forget about it, people will come back and get into that waste again and have some problems.

That’s one of the things we have to worry about with Hanford is kind of the long-term stewardship. We have to make sure that people keep hold of the information and keep hold of the tribal knowledge about Hanford for generations to come, and remind everyone, “Hey, there’s a problem here at Hanford, and we need to be careful what we do there.”

We’re trying to stabilize Hanford so that you only have to be careful about digging into the ground below 15 feet, and so that you can run around on the ground surface and do anything you want. That’s kind of the goal, is to make the land surface suitable for people to do what they want and protect the Columbia River.

Kelly: Fifteen feet is a fairly hefty depth.

Price: Yeah. That’s the State of Washington regulatory standards. The State of Washington’s theory is, if you want to put in a house with a basement or some kind of an office building with a basement, you might dig a foundation or a basement down 15 feet. If you clean up contamination down to 15 feet, then you’ll protect people that put in a building in the future. That’s the idea.

Kelly: That’s a standard that’s been all along the Columbia, or along the Reach?

Price: Yeah. That’s the standard that’s been applied all along the Reach, as we’ve cleaned up to 15 feet below ground surface at, I think, pretty much every location. At most locations, you could even have a small garden plot and irrigate from your garden hose and eat the produce, and it would be perfectly safe. That’s hypothetical. The land use controls won’t allow that, but that’s the cleanup that we targeted back in the ‘90s when we weren’t really sure where we were going to end up with the future use of the Hanford site. That was before the National Monument.

Kelly: It’s interesting, you talk about paradox, that we’re close, but we’re not so close. It sounds like we’ve done a tremendous job, obviously, on the Reach part. We’ve got a concentrated containment situation.

Price: Yeah. We’ve done a tremendous job along the Reach, and, obviously, the tank waste is the big challenge for Hanford.

I’ve thought about it a little bit, and the technology is definitely there to treat that waste. The French made their first glass in 1965, although they didn’t have to deal with the huge volumes that we have to deal with. Hanford itself reprocessed tank waste a couple of times. Once to scavenge the uranium out of the tank waste and reuse that, and then also to remove the cesium and strontium from the tank waste when it was causing heat problems in the tank waste. It’s certainly proven that you can treat the tank waste, and I think what’s been lacking really is the imperative to do it now.

A good example I thought of is the collapse of the Purex Tunnel #1. That situation with the weakness in the tunnel was understood as far back as 1980. But it wasn’t until 37 years later when the tunnel collapsed that people said, “Oh, this is an emergency. We need to do something about it now.” Once it became an imperative, they were able to stabilize that waste in less than a year. When those situations come up at Hanford, it’s amazing. People can act very quickly and be very decisive. That imperative is, I think, really what we’ve been lacking to get some things done. That’s what we really need to do with the tank waste is, get on with it.

Kelly: What are, would you say, the crux of the issues that prevent maybe this getting on with it now?

Price: I’ve thought about that a little bit. One thing that I think is not mentioned very much is the lack of a deep geologic repository. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was originally intended to be the repository for spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants and for high-level waste from Hanford. That repository got put on hold. It still isn’t licensed. Still not clear if that’s going to be the eventual burial ground for high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel.

But lacking a deep geologic repository for high-level waste kind of complicates things, because instead of being focused on processing a waste and sending it directly to that place, you’re processing that waste and putting it into storage. I think one lesson that we’ve learned is, storing waste for a long time is a bad idea, because you have to spend a lot of money managing it. Containers can degrade, and you can have problems with waste when you’re storing it. It’s much more practical and less costly to ship a waste to its eventual disposal site. We just don’t have that ability right now with the tank waste. That’s kind of one kind of overarching problem.

The other thing that you see with the tank waste is, DOE has started and stopped five times now. They’ve had different approaches to the tank waste going back to the 1990s. Every time you change direction, it costs money, I think, from a couple of different standpoints. One is, you have to invest money in the new approach, designing it and developing it. The other thing is, you’re spending money over a long time period, managing waste in the tanks and also just working on the treatment plant.

It’s a much better idea to design and build something quickly and to stay the course with one approach, rather than restarting every four or five years. That’s probably the second overarching problem is starting and stopping several times.

Kelly: Why were those processes started and stopped?

Price: I can’t really kind of give you off the top of my head the different ideas. I think, philosophically, one thing that’s happened a couple of times is, people have looked at the cost of the tank waste and said, “Wow, that’s a lot of money. We need to come up with a better, cheaper approach.”

I think kind of the classic story—and I don’t know if I’m the best person to tell this—but at the time, a gentleman named Dick French was in charge of the Office of River Protection, and they looked at an alternative of privatizing the tank waste. The idea was, they would come up with a fixed price for the treatment of the tank waste and negotiate that with a vendor. When they got the cost estimate back, it was a big number, and I think he ended up getting fired over that number. It ended up, that would’ve been a great deal for the federal government if they’d taken the deal at the time. I think it increased the cost of the tank waste vitrification plant from like $3 billion to $8 billion, and that would have been a great deal for the government if they’d taken that deal and run. 

But people see these big numbers and say, “Gosh, we can’t afford that. That’s too much. There’s got to be a better way.” Sometimes, the better way is just to stay the course and get the work done. I think that’s one thing that’s been lacking.

Kelly: I guess there’s a little bit of a discussion about going forward, whether you vaporize some of the liquids or remove some of the liquids, and then use a grouting or concrete as a stabilizer, as opposed to vitrification, or maybe in combination. Can you tell us about that?

Price: Sure. The latest alternative for tank waste treatment is called the “Test Bed Initiative,” and this is one in a number of different initiatives that have been tried over the years. A previous one I remember was called “bulk vitrification,” and, basically, this was making glass in a storage box, if you will. I believe the federal government spent like $500 million working on that, and it didn’t prove to be any cheaper or faster than the waste treatment plant. They gave up on that.

Currently, we’ve heard a little bit about a proposal to process some of the supernatant, the liquid in the single-cell tanks through the evaporate at Hanford, and then turn it into grout. But we really don’t have a lot of details about that yet, and so it’s really difficult to evaluate that proposal and see if it’s going to be cheaper, faster, effective or even viable. It’s really pretty early to tell about that.

I view it as one in a long line of initiatives. You really need to do your homework and lay out a well thought-out proposal when you’re looking at changing the course. And I don’t think that’s been done yet.

Kelly:  Can you talk about why it’s so complicated? Because if you’re familiar with the Savannah River Site, they vitrified that waste there 25 years ago. Can you talk about how Hanford is such a—

Price: Yeah. I don’t know that I have a great handle on why Hanford is different. There’s a lot more tank waste to be treated here, which is certainly one factor. You can look around the world at France vitrifying waste. Savannah River has done it. I don’t know why it’s been so complicated. That’s probably a more complicated story that I can, I can tell.

Kelly: My understanding is that other places have had more homogenous treatment processes. They were consistently using X or Y approach, so they know the composition of the byproduct, of the waste. Whereas at Hanford, you used five, six, I don’t know how many different processes over time. And so, each tank has its own combination of ingredients that is a mystery.

Price: Yeah. Thanks for the prompting. There’s a number of different waste streams in the Hanford tanks that have to be dealt with, and those generate some unique problems. I know one of the problems they were concerned about is accumulation of plutonium in the waste treatment plant. That would come from the tanks that have more plutonium in them. There’s potential for some tanks to maybe have some materials in them that might help generate hydrogen in the waste treatment plants. The variety of waste in the tanks has certainly contributed to the complexity of treating it, for sure.

Hanford is so complicated, it’s hard for any one person to be expert in all part of it. I’m a little more expert in some pieces that I’m giving you, and I’ve thought a lot about the kind of philosophy of cleanup. You’re getting somewhat a philosopher as well. I think about the philosophy of regulation and the philosophy of cleaning up Hanford. Maybe you’re getting a little more of that flavor, than the technical flavor.

Kelly: No, that’s wonderful. That’s great. Picking up on that theme, we talked a little bit about your philosophy.

Price: Yeah. I think some of the underlying philosophy is—the State of Washington has the Hanford site, and that was a national mission, but the State of Washington is stuck with the environmental problems. Just from a national equity perspective, it’s important for Hanford and the other states impacted by the Department of Energy mission to have them cleaned up, so those citizens don’t disproportionately share in the contamination issues. That’s really why Hanford should be cleaned up really well.

I think a lot about the tribal governments. They signed a contract in 1855, and gave away millions of acres of land. That contract is still in place. It hasn’t been modified. Contracts have to be modified by mutual agreement, and that contract with the tribal governments is still in place. I think one thing that was really poignant for me—and one thing I’ve really gotten out of dealing with the tribal governments—is, the spokespeople for the different tribal governments, the elders or just the senior cleanup people with the tribal governments, they really do a great job voicing their concerns and really motivating us to do the cleanup.

One thing that came home for me is, I think, with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, I think there’s only about 2,000 individuals on that reservation. If you think about even one of those individuals being impacted by Hanford contamination, that’s a big percentage of their population. That’s impacting them for generations to come.

In the cleanup world, we talk about excess cancer risk, which is really kind of an abstract number. We talk about, we have to, you know, clean-up to so that there’s no more than one excess cancer per 10,000 individuals. That sounds like a low number, one in 10,000, but if that happens to you personally, that’s a huge number. If you think about there only being 2,000 individuals at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, a one in 10,000 risk to them, that’s a big risk when there’s only 2,000 individuals there.

That’s one thing, I think, that was really brought home to me from working with the tribal governments. I really appreciated kind of their perspective on things. It really helps to keep you from not kind of getting used to the scale of Hanford, and really kind of stepping back from   and saying, “Wait a minute. This is a huge deal. We need to do something about this.”

Kelly: You mentioned—and this may not be something you’ve dealt with—but you said in the ‘80s, the Downwinders’ issues came to the fore. Can you talk about them?

Price:  Yeah. I really don’t know a whole lot about the downwinder issue directly. Mainly, what I understand, what’s been important to me, is the Spokesman Review newspaper got involved at the time. That was really the genesis of environment activism for Hanford.

Originally, there was big contingent of people out of Spokane that were really interested in Hanford cleanup. There used to be big public meetings and a lot of public participation out of Spokane. They’re not so interested anymore. We don’t have a lot of turnout in Spokane. But really, the downwinder issue was the genesis of making information about Hanford a lot more available to people, so that people could really understand what was going on at Hanford.

I think there was really two things that I look at as generating the Hanford cleanup. One is, the downwinder situation led to a lot more public interest. The other thing that happened is, Washington started getting interested in the mid-1980s. We had an individual with Ecology, Roger Stanley, and he started doing the first inspections at Hanford. There’s some great stories. When he would first come out to Hanford, they would drive him through Hanford in a bus, and he wasn’t even allowed to get off the bus.

We heard about problems at Hanford and started doing more inspections and working with the EPA, and finally came to the conclusion that it was a big problem for Washington. That partly led to the Tri-Party Agreement being negotiated in 1989, because the state felt like we needed to have a legal agreement that was going to push DOE to clean up Hanford.

Kelly: In the ideal world, what would happen in your next 25 years here?

Price: Yeah. In the ideal world, I really would like to see the tank waste start to get treated. It’s not going to finish up in my lifetime. But that’s one thing that’s really hard for state regulators, I think for people on the DOE side, and also for the public. That’s probably the biggest question I get asked when I go to public meetings is “Why is it taking so long?”

One of the things we’re trying to do now is set up kind of yearly successes. That’s something DOE has expressed is, it would be great if we can show something every year that we’ve been successful on, because that’ll keep the public interested for the longer term.

Here’s an interesting comparison that I’ve done is, I looked around for projects that have taken as long as Hanford, because the cleanup has been going on since 1989. It’s going to go on until 2089, at least, so 100 years.

The only really long project I found that the federal government has done was building the Washington Monument. It took, like, 60 years, but it got interrupted by the Civil War, and they ran out of money for a while. Generally, the federal government has not had the will to carry off these long-term projects. We’re really doing something that hasn’t been done, in that aspect, is trying to maintain interest and will for a hundred years. That’s going to be really challenging, and that’s probably the biggest challenge of Hanford. 

I keep coming back to the money, because there’s so many things that you can spend money on that make a lot of sense. Puerto Rico was devastated by a hurricane, and needs so much money to repair the infrastructure down there. We’ve always got these choices. Do we cleanup up a natural disaster, or do we keep Hanford from becoming a natural disaster? It’s really hard to advocate for spending money this year for Hanford, when there’s not the immediate effects on the Columbia River.

But that, again, is the paradox. If you don’t spend money this year or next year or the following year, eventually something bad happens like the Purex Tunnel #1 collapsing. We knew about it for 38 years, and eventually, it collapsed. If you don’t do something for long enough, something bad happens. That’s what we need to guard against is, kind of the inertia of not having to spend money this year or next year.

We really need to ramp up and make some real progress and get ahead of the curve of what’s happening here at Hanford and keep things from falling apart. Because gravity works, and the theory of chaos works, and things fall apart eventually. We’ve got to get the waste stabilized and disposed of, or those laws will come into play and we will lose. That’s my parting message, I guess.

Kelly: Wow. That’s a good incentivizer, the fear of this calamity. I suppose one, what are some of the forms the calamity could take? I suppose the breaching of the lining, the shells, the tanks themselves, is that one scenario? 

Price: Yeah. I worry a lot about the stigma of radiation. Because if radiation is detected off the Hanford site—even it’s not at levels that are harmful to human health, the environment—it creates a stigma maybe for our agricultural products. People may not want to buy Washington products because they’re concerned about Hanford contamination.

We frequently get phone calls from people, that are wanting to relocate to the Tri-Cities. They’ll call us up and say, “Is it safe?” 

My answer is, “Well, I live here, I’m okay with it.” But that really is the stigma of radiation that maybe you don’t get with some other types of environmental problems.

Kelly: You look at the wineries that have blossomed in the last 20, 30 years all around this Columbia River Basin in Hanford’s shadow.

Price: Yeah.

Kelly: But have they had marketing issues?

Price: No. I think you just have to say, the quality of the environment is really important to the State of Washington. You can see that with our emphasis on keeping the Puget Sound cleaner, and what’s happened with the Orca whales over there.

Just across the state, having a healthy environment is important to tourism and the economy. That’s just really important. Washington should haven’t to bear a national environment legacy from building nuclear weapons. We’ve paid our dues, and now it’s time to clean up the contamination.

Kelly: I guess one hope is that this latest in a series of great new ideas for how to do with the tank waste, the latest study that may promise to do it quicker, cheaper, faster.

Price: Yeah. I’m skeptical until I see a lot more details, and see it actually working. Because as I said, we’ve seen a couple of attempts to do it faster, better, cheaper. Once they got into the actual building it and running it, it didn’t end up being faster or cheaper. But maybe it’ll be better this time.

Kelly: Then, they get cancelled.

Price: Yeah. And then they get cancelled, yeah.

Kelly: Right. And they start all over again.

Price: Yeah. And you’ve spent all that money on the new idea, and you didn’t get anything out of it. Our message is, “Stay the course. Let’s get it done. We’ve got a plan. Let’s follow the plan.”  

Kelly: What do you see, if this all succeeds, and here we are in 2089, the celebration. What does Hanford look like? Is it going to be a big birds and bunny recreation area? 

Price: Yeah. Right now, it’s on track to be a national wildlife refuge, a national monument. Tribal peoples can use the land again.

We’re going to be able to build right up to the border of the Hanford site, maybe build condos in the 300 Area that used to be used for uranium processing. We’ll be able to enjoy the Columbia River for generations to come. That’s the hope is, protect the Columbia River and hand it down to future generations to enjoy just like we have.

Kelly: What’s the population? Give a sense, since Richland was 1,000 people in 1943 or two. What is it now?

Price: Yeah. There’s more than 200,000 people in the Tri-Cities area, which is Richland, Kennewick, Pasco, and then some outlying towns as well. It’s a really great place to live, because it’s dry. Washington has the reputation for getting lots of rain. We’re the Evergreen State, but the Tri-Cities area gets about six inches of rain per year on average. This is one of the warmest places in Washington State, because we’re low elevation and we’re down south. It’s really a warm location.

People really enjoy the quality of life here, so that’s why I think people are moving in here. There’s been an educated workforce with Hanford, and so I think that’s transferred over to more technical industries and good paying jobs. That’s why people come to the Tri-Cities.