Engineering Ethics Blog: The Legacy of Hanford

One era’s triumph can turn into another era’s disaster,
and perhaps no better example of that in the field of nuclear energy and
weapons is the Hanford Site in south-central Washington State, about 200 miles
from Seattle.  During the height of
World War II, physicist Enrico Fermi designed a nuclear reactor for the Dupont
Corporation to produce plutonium that was needed for nuclear weapons, as part
of the ultra-secret Manhattan Project. 
The small farming community of Hanford, Washington was selected for the
site of the reactor and associated chemical processing plants, and more than
40,000 construction workers swarmed to the bank of the Columbia River in 1943
to build what became known after the war as the Hanford Nuclear

Because plutonium is one of the most deadly
radioactive substances known, plant designers had to come up with novel ways of
transporting large volumes of liquid and solid plutonium-containing material
while keeping workers either far away from the load or behind several feet of
radiation shielding.  Accordingly,
one of the first industrial applications of closed-circuit TV was to view
remote-controlled plutonium-handling equipment.  In view of the hazards of spills during transportation from
the producing reactors to the processing plant, a railway tunnel was
constructed of timbers and steel, buried in a foot or more of earth on
top.  Plutonium that went into the
“Fat Man” nuclear bomb used on Nagasaki, Japan probably passed
through this tunnel, as did dozens of tons of plutonium used to make nuclear
weapons during the Cold War.

Beginning in the 1960s, plutonium production ceased
at Hanford, as it was realized that the site was heavily contaminated with
long-lasting radioactive material and was no longer usable by then-current
safety standards.  When the U. S.
populace felt its back was to the wall during the war, not many people raised
issues about long-term health hazards of working with nuclear weapons.  But as the threat of nuclear war
declined after the Partial Test Ban Treaty between the USSR and the US in 1963,
and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most production
activity ceased at Hanford and instead, a massive cleanup became the top
priority.  The U. S. Department of
Energy now spends billions of dollars a year on the Hanford cleanup, employing
8,000 people at the site and taking reasonable precautions about keeping
workers safe.  But since President
Trump’s appointment of former Texas governor Rick Perry to head the Department
of Energy, the media has paid more attention to the Department and any problems
it may have, the most recent of which is the collapse of part of the roof of
the old railroad tunnel used to transport plutonium.

The hole in the tunnel, more than ten feet across,
was discovered on May 9, and as a precaution, many employees at the site were
told to shelter in place until measurements could be taken to tell if
substantial amounts of radioactive material had been released.  Investigation showed that no such
release occurred, and the hole has since been covered in plastic and plans made
to fill the old tunnel with grout. 
Several railroad cars used to transport plutonium remain in the tunnel,
which is altogether too radioactive to be inspected by humans, although robotic
inspections are possible.  A second
larger tunnel built in the 1950s has also shown signs of structural
instability, and Hanford managers are planning to do something about preventing
its collapse by August.

It would be nice if engineering ethics consisted of a
set of unchanging rules, and doing engineering ethically simply meant
understanding and following the rules. 
But a phrase I recently came across expresses nicely the difference
between the discipline of ethics and the disciplines of the hard sciences. 

Ethics is a “humane science”—meaning not
that it’s kind to animals, but that its “laws” are really just
generalizations that depend on the nature of humanity, and so cannot show the
ironclad reliability and constancy of physical laws.  This is not to argue for relativism—the notion that all
ethical principles are relative to particular times, places, and cultures.  Rather, it is to confess both
ignorance—no finite human being can possibly know all the relevant
considerations in a particular ethical situation—and the fact that as human
cultures and societies change, what is regarded as ethical behavior in a given
circumstance can also change. 

In the case of Hanford, what has changed the most is
our sense of priorities.  In 1939,
the U. S. suspected Hitler of building a nuclear weapon, and Japanese troops
were showing signs of fighting to the last man on the last domestic island of
that nation.  For good or ill
(plenty of both, actually), Roosevelt gave the green light to the Manhattan
Project, which led to the first production and use of nuclear weapons six years
later.  Both leaders and ordinary
citizens felt seriously that the U. S. was fighting for its life, and in such a
situation, concerns about exposures to levels of radiation that might possibly
lead to cancer in twenty or thirty years, or might pollute the environment for
hundreds of years, simply faded into the background.

Having enjoyed relative peace in the North American
continent ever since the end of World War II, the U. S. can now afford to deal
with the messes it created during the war, Hanford being the leading
example.  Many opponents of nuclear
power take the acres of lethal radioactivity at Hanford to be proof sufficient
to lead us to swear off all use of nuclear power forever, amen.  And it must be admitted that disasters
such as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-reactor fire in Ukraine are uniquely
horrible.  Shutting down all
nuclear plants would presumably avoid such incidents in the future. 

But nuclear energy is also uniquely suited to address
the increasingly prominent issue of global warming.  While it is an open question whether renewable energy can
compete economically with nuclear energy for the world’s short-term energy
needs, it would be shortsighted to rule nuclear out altogether because of an
emotional reaction against it not based on an objective view of the facts.  Unfortunately, there are lots of facts
to view, and so nuclear power remains controversial, as it probably always will
simply because its first public use was to bring us the horrors of nuclear

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