The year was 1999, and Gretchen Hund, a scientist then working for Batelle Memorial Institute had walked into a radioactive ghost town.
“It was almost Twilight Zone-ish,” she said. “You have this big boulevard with all these apartment buildings on each side with huge vines growing through the windows. It was like somebody turned the lights off and everybody left.”
Hund was in Pripyat, the former Soviet city surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. She was there as part of an international effort to retrain the plant workers who were still operating at the site. “Most people don’t know there are four reactors,” Hund explained. It was reactor No. 4 that experienced a meltdown in 1986; the other three were still producing electricity years later.
“Imagine there is literally a wall between reactor No. 4 that blew and reactor No. 3 that is still operating,” she went on. It didn’t matter that the area surrounding the plant was still highly radioactive, Hund explained. The plant workers, forced to choose between their health and a stable paycheck, were opting for the latter.
“They needed those jobs. They needed that energy. And so we had to convince them that no, this energy isn’t important. These jobs aren’t important. We’re going to find other things for you to do.” The international effort was ultimately successful. A year later, the final reactor was shut down for good.
Despite her visit to Chernobyl, Hund still believes there is a place for nuclear power, if one big problem can be solved: the leftover nuclear waste that can remain hazardous for thousands of years. She admits it won’t be easy, a lesson she learned over a career that spanned the Office of Technology Assessment and as director of the Center for Global Security at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “I spent years and years, over a decade working on the waste issues and we haven’t figured it out yet.”
“The old fashioned way of handling this is ‘muck, suck, and truck,’ Hund explained. Cleaning crews scrape away layers of radioactive dirt and plant material, or suck it out of a nearby pond, and then truck it someplace else, only to run into another issue: NIMBYism, or “not-in-my-backyard” sensitivities. Other cleaning strategies have their own complications. Chemical cleaning agents, for example, are highly toxic, long-lasting, and can seep into underground water tables.
This is especially true in places like the Hanford Site, the decommissioned plutonium factory that produced the warheads for most of the United States’ nuclear weapons. “A power plant is nothing compared to the Manhattan Project and the amount of waste we made in building nuclear weapons,” said Hund. “There’s a seven square-mile plume [of carbon tetrachloride] underneath Hanford.”
“The good news about Hanford is that you’ve got a water table that is quite deep.” But, she warned, other nuclear sites - like the still active Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee or the Savannah River facility in Georgia - are not so lucky.
“Remember, this isn’t just Hanford. There are all of these other weapons sites around the country where this was done.”
“That’s what makes it even trickier.”
About Press the Button: in addition to "The Interview" in which Joe Cirincione sits down with prominent thinkers, legislators, activists, and grantees working on nuclear weapons issues for a short, illuminating conversation, episodes have two other segments: "Early Warning" — a round-up of the most pressing nuclear news in 7 minutes, roughly the same amount of time the US president has to authorize a nuclear weapons launch in the event of an incoming attack on the United States; and "In the Silo" — a monthly, close-up look at key nuclear issues and events around the world, utilizing field recordings, media clips, interviews, and extensive narration.