November 17, 1994 in City

Hanford: cleaning up mess will require better management

Karen Dorn Steele and Jim Lynch Staff writers
 
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In the 21st century, nuclear undertakers will bury Hanford’s bomb-making past in the desert soil.

They will demolish the brooding gray plutonium reactors that sucked water from the Columbia River and spewed it back full of radiation.

They will empty the buried tanks of their lethal goo and stop the flow of toxic leaks into the groundwater.

They will erect large frowning faces, or other warning symbols, to keep future generations away from trenches where deadly, long-lived waste is entombed.

But if Hanford’s cleanup continues to be mismanaged, this vision of a tranquil nuclear graveyard may vanish like a desert mirage.

Unless the billions of dollars of public money is better spent, Congress could slash funding and leave the Northwest with an environmental menace that threatens the region long after 2028, when the cleanup is supposed to be over.

The Clinton White House is rushing reforms to better control Hanford cash, but as Assistant Energy Secretary Tom Grumbly gripes, it’s like trying to steer a supertanker with a tiny rudder.

Proposed reforms include changing contracts that reward private companies for inefficiency, and making it harder for law firms to charge taxpayers exorbitant legal fees. There also are calls to reduce or eliminate contractor employee perks that have nothing to do with cleanup.

That’s a start, but more changes are needed. Here are some ideas:

Challenge Washington’s congressional delegation to find out what’s going on at Hanford, and to fight as hard for efficient spending as they do for more money.

Increase audits of Hanford’s contractors, instead of relying too much on audits the companies perform on themselves.

Trim the work force beyond current plans and curb contractor salaries that

cost the public as much as $213,000 a year - more than President Clinton earns.

Give the state complete access to Hanford books so the Department of Ecology can see exactly what money is being spent to meet cleanup goals.

Provide financial information in Hanford reading rooms so the public can track the cash and offer comments.

Track where overhead money goes. About 20 cents on every Hanford dollar goes into this black hole. But there hasn’t been a thorough audit of what overhead money really buys.

Open up Hanford work to more free-market competition.

The DOE recently had eight bus loads of business representatives shuttling out to see the tank farms. The interest resulted from the agency soliciting companies to propose a cheaper way to do the work.

BEYOND CONTROL

Even if Hanford improves its financial act, there are threats beyond its control that could derail the cleanup.

The rising national deficit may force the cleanup to compete for dollars with other domestic priorities that affect millions of people, such as Medicare and environmental issues like polluted air and drinking water.

The money also could go to other states as Washington’s congressional delegation loses clout next year with the exit of House Speaker Tom Foley.

A lawsuit could complicate the cleanup, too.

Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire says she’s poised to sue the DOE if it doesn’t commit to building plants to turn tank wastes into glass logs to fulfill its pact with the state.

“My patience about all of this has worn really thin,” she says. “If the job isn’t getting done, we may have to look at the courts as a last resort.”

Meanwhile, a powerful critic of the DOE’s nationwide nuclear waste cleanup program, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., wants the DOE to prove Hanford needs the money now.

Johnston gave the DOE until Jan. 1 to rank the environmental risks posed by DOE weapons sites.

If Hanford slips in priority, so will its funding.

QUESTIONS AHEAD

It took more than four decades to create Hanford’s mess, and may take as long to clean it up. The debate on the following key issues could go on just as long.

IS THE CLEANUP WORTH THE COST?

It’s impossible to tell how much the cleanup should cost until more work is done and sloppy spending practices end.

There is no way to clean Hanford without spending billions, but the money should be spent defusing the biggest emergencies first. Further spending should be scrutinized with cost-benefit analyses to prove it’s worth the investment.

Most observers agree Hanford’s nuclear messes are the most dangerous in the nation.

If they aren’t controlled, , irrigation, fishing and other uses of the Columbia River - as well as the health of Eastern Washington residents - could be harmed for centuries by migrating radiation.

Two small earthquakes this month underscore the risks posed by the leaky K Basins near the Columbia, where 80 percent of the country’s used nuclear fuel rests in old ponds. A big earthquake could send contaminated water into the river.

Miles away from the river, Hanford’s 177 underground tanks, holding two-thirds of the nation’s most hazardous nuclear waste, are potential environmental nightmares.

If a tank explodes, it could give Eastern Washington a radioactive shower.

Once the tanks and the ponds are controlled, the question is: How much more should be spent to clean up the rest of the site? The public and Congress haven’t decided how much area to leave behind as a contaminated no-man’s land.

The less money spent, the bigger the remaining contaminated area. So far, the cost of each alternative hasn’t been much of an issue. It should be.

WHY PROCEED WITH THE CLEANUP BEFORE THE TECHNOLOGIES TO DO THE JOB ARE DEVELOPED?

The biggest dangers need to be defused as soon as possible. There isn’t time to wait for technology to evolve. Still, the DOE and its contractors need to get the necessary equipment in a more efficient manner.

As the system now works, off-the-shelf alternatives are often ignored in preference for creating something new, sources say.

New equipment brings research and development money from the government, and generates future patent revenue for companies, but it also can pick the taxpayers’ pocket. Incentives should encourage solving problems quickly and economically.

A new $230 million Environmental Molecular Sciences Lab could provide some answers. Researchers will seek cheaper ways to clean Hanford’s contaminated soils and groundwater.

A recent federal report recommends better coordination of technology development and fewer turf wars between contractors.

A University of California experiment to protect groundwater beneath the waste tanks couldn’t be done at Hanford because of contractor resistance.

Instead, the test was done this year in California. “It’s like walking in molasses to do anything new at Hanford,” one of the researchers says.

DO THE NATION’S TAXPAYERS OWE ANYTHING TO THE TRI-CITIES?

Maybe. But not at the price of funding a boondoggle.

If the federal government runs a cleanup that is both cost-effective and helps the Tri-Cities diversify its economy, everyone wins.

The Tri-Cities has been at the mercy of government spending for 50 years, enduring brutal economic busts as well as the booms. Weaning the economy off the tax dollars should be done as gently as possible.

But the nation’s taxpayers might be surprised to know that the government considers economic development of the Tri-Cities equally important as complying with the cleanup agreement.

DOE’s economic contributions are substantial. It recently allocated $5 million to retire 1,000 workers early.

The agency also gave:

$2.1 million for seven Tri-Cities economic diversification projects.

$3.9 million for Westinghouse’s efforts to stimulate the local economy.

$1 million to Columbia Basin College in Pasco to retrain laid-off or retired Hanford workers.

WHAT WILL HANFORD LOOK LIKE IN THE 21ST CENTURY?

The answer depends on how much money is spent and how effectively. A minimum investment would defuse the threats but leave a contaminated area off limits for tens of thousands of years.

How big that area will be remains unclear.

The best case scenario returns much of the site to productive uses, including farming and recreation.

Russell Jim of the Yakama Indian Nation wants his grandchildren to fish and forage at a pristine Hanford, where the land is sacred.

The Rev. William Houff, founder of the Hanford Education Action League in Spokane, is more pessimistic. He sees a tall fence around Hanford’s poisoned heartland.

“It will probably be a national sacrifice zone,” Houff says. “It’s technically impossible to clean it up. It’s like pouring salt into a barrel of water and then decades later saying, now get the salt back.”

A new regional citizens group, the Hanford Advisory Board, recently helped redirect cleanup to start at the Columbia River shoreline.

The board wants quicker action to clean up groundwater while waiting longer to deal with the poisoned dirt.

At the very least, the shoreline should be restored and radioactive groundwater stopped from bleeding into the river, board members say.

The price tag remains unknown.

As the debate continues, it’s increasingly clear Hanford’s $2 billion a year bonanza won’t continue for too long.

Congress is likely to slow the money in the next few years as it weighs environmental risks and investigators better examine Hanford’s books.

Mark Drummond dove into Hanford’s problems when he agreed to lead a panel on the site’s future. The president of Eastern Washington University emerged stricken by Hanford’s importance.

“On a regional level there’s probably nothing more important to the economic well-being of the state or the health and welfare of the citizens than what goes on at Hanford,” Drummond says.

“It can make the state a great place or a very troubled place.”


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