Forty-two years ago this month I was midway through Dr. Eugene S. 'Gene' Simpson's semester-long U of AZ HWR 335 course, Aquifer Performance Mechanics. It was a graduate course in groundwater, my first exposure to the subject. Gene, ultimately my PhD advisor, told me not to bother with the intro groundwater course, HWR 235 Hydrogeology, because it was 'easy to pick up'. In retrospect, I think what he really meant was that it was for cretins, taught by someone who didn't know what he was
doing [apologies to anyone who took HYD 235 from Stan Davis - not for the faint-hearted!]. In any case, HWR 335 had a sexier title.
Gene told us that before becoming a professor he had worked with the U.S. Geological Survey (with C.V. Theis, no less), mostly on problems of radioactive waste disposal and its fate and transport though porous and fractured media. We benefited from his wealth of knowledge and experience, although we could not access many of his publications because they had been classified.
I recall one lecture that dealt with some of the issues at the Hanford Site in Washington State on the banks of the Columbia River. He first encountered Hanford in the late 1940s, I believe. He regaled us with tales of dealing with liquid high-level radioactive waste - literally hot (boiling, even), terribly corrosive, explosive gas-generating - that was leaking out of cribs (just pits dug in the ground, I believe) or ill-constructed tanks, contaminating groundwater and perhaps the Columbia River. He emphasized that this was a difficult problem, not one easily treated.
Although Gene was not normally a critical person and was painfully aware that hindsight is always 20-20, when he spoke of Hanford and its problems I could see and hear him express annoyance. What galled him was that the stuff - originally about 500 million gallons, some of which had been discharged directly onto the ground - was apparently still (1971) leaking from those tanks. We were incredulous. Why would someone allow that to happen? We can do better, was his message.
Gene died in 1995. I wonder whether he thought that Hanford's leaks had been fixed. I suspect not.
Fast forward to 2013. Hanford tanks are still leaking. No question about that. The feckless folks at DoE and its contractors still can't get it right. lo these many years. The vitrification plant that is supposed to turn the remaining 50 million (or so) gallons of liquid hell into harmless glass isn't doing too well - $12B or so it'll cost, if they can figure out how to build it. I read that one person said that they were 'designing it as they go.' WTF?
And a second plant may be needed.
But back to tanks. After all these years, the damn tanks are still leaking. And leaking. And leaking. No excuses, folks.
Gene must be rolling over in his grave. I'd love to ask him "Why are they still leaking?" I suspect he would ask me the same thing.
Note added on 7 March 2013: Here's a story about DoE wanting to ship 3 million gallons of Hanford waste to New Mexico. When in trouble, spread the pain. Also - right after I wrote this I received my (free) review copy of Bill and Rosemarie Alley's Too Hot To Touch. They have a discussion of Hanford and its tanks on pp. 64-70.
"We're just being a good steward of taxpayer dollars. If there's a more cost-efficient way to treat the waste, we want to look at those alternatives." - DoE spokesperson, speaking of Hanford