House Speaker Newt Gingrich has picked a Tri-Cities Republican to lead a new task force on nuclear cleanup issues.
Rep. Richard “Doc” Hastings of Pasco will head the 15-member House group. Spokane Rep. George Nethercutt also is a member.
The group has a decidedly partisan slant; its members are all Republicans, mostly newcomers from the 1994 elections.
That has raised eyebrows among Hanford activists and Northwest Democrats, who have worked for years with the region’s Republicans on Hanford issues.
The group’s goal: To develop proposed legislation by early August to reform the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear cleanup program at Hanford and 16 other weapons sites.
Gingrich said he wants to eliminate “red tape” and speed cleanup.
“Everything is on the table, including the management structure, (DOE) orders, federal regulations, and even Congress’ role in cleanup activities,” he said.
DOE’s multi-billion dollar nuclear cleanup has been criticized in recent months for wasting money while cleanup stalls.
More than $8 billion has been spent at Hanford so far to stabilize dangerous plutonium from decades of bomb-making, clean out defunct production buildings, and tame unstable waste tanks.
Gingrich’s Friday announcement took regional activists by surprise.
“I’d be very concerned about the establishment of yet another task force, and I find it disconcerting that it’s totally Republican,” said Cynthia Sartou, staff attorney for Heart of America Northwest in Seattle, and Hanford watchdog group.
A staffer for Rep. Ron Wyden said the Oregon Democrat, a regional leader on Hanford issues, had not been invited to join the House task force.
In February, Wyden called for a congressional investigation into Hanford spending, including the “culture of waste” perpetuated by nuclear contractors hired to run Hanford for the government.
Wyden rapped the contractors for spending an estimated 30 cents of every dollar on overhead, or $451 million last year.
Westinghouse Hanford Co. has defended some of the overhead expenditures, but has admitted the costs need to come down.
The Gingrich task force will look at ways to deregulate the cleanup, possibly using one or two sites to test a “streamlined” approach to the job, Hastings said.
Heart of America and Spokane’s Hanford Education Action League oppose deregulating the cleanup.
They say “streamlining” actually means relaxing stringent cleanup standards, endangering the health of future generations.