A U.S. Senate report concludes Congress must grab control of the mismanaged Hanford cleanup before it squanders billions of tax dollars.
“The federal taxpayer is paying far too much at Hanford and getting far too little in return,” says the report released Tuesday by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The 500-page report claims the multi-agency agreement guiding the cleanup has failed, with scant progress to show for the $7.5 billion spent at Hanford in the past six years.
The Senate report calls for legislative action to change the cleanup blueprint and the business practices at the defunct nuclear weapons plant along the Columbia River.
“We believe Congress must act decisively to salvage the program and prevent further taxpayer dollars from being squandered,” says the report titled “Train Wreck Along the River of Money.”
The report has convinced Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., to propose legislation to slash Hanford’s budget in half.
The former chairman of the Senate Energy Committee wants an $800 million cap on Hanford cleanup spending - down from an annual cleanup budget of about $1.6 billion. The total budget this year for all Hanford operations is about $2 billion.
The report suggests Congress require the Department of Energy to spend money on the most dangerous hazards first. It also calls on lawmakers to set new cleanup goals and to streamline environmental regulations.
The Senate committee hired Steven Blush and Thomas Heitman, two former Energy Department employees, to conduct the investigation. They interviewed about 250 people and reviewed more than 1,500 documents. Their report discusses many of the Hanford management problems exposed in “Wasteland,” The Spokesman-Review’s five-part series published in November.
The Senate report says the U.S. Department of Energy still has no firm idea of how much it will cost to clean up the nuclear graveyard or when the “largest civil works project in world history” will be finished.
“Leadership in formulating a coherent approach to the cleanup is lacking,” the report says, noting, “Hanford is floundering in a legal and regulatory morass.”
The Senate report criticizes the Tri-Party Agreement, the ever-changing cleanup pact that includes the Energy Department, the state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The cleanup agreement asks “the American people to pay for a program … that in certain fundamental respects makes no technical, political or financial sense,” according to the report.
Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary defended the department’s Hanford cleanup effort Tuesday at a hearing before the House subcommittee that oversees her budget.
“I am very proud of the progress we have made in the two years and two months we’ve been on the job,” O’Leary said.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., told O’Leary some Hanford cleanup responsibilities should be shifted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“I think all options are on the table,” O’Leary responded.
Other Washington lawmakers reacted to the report, too.
Rep. Richard “Doc” Hastings, R-Wash., said it confirms his charge that Hanford workers are handcuffed by environmental regulators.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she fears the report will encourage Congress to punish Hanford unfairly for a nationwide problem with managing nuclear cleanups.
“Certainly we want taxpayers to get their money’s worth,” she said. But “we shouldn’t just throw up our arms.”
U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash, took a more fatalistic approach. “Many of the criticisms of what has gone on in the past are quite accurate, but it is not anything new.”
Hanford was built in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the government’s secret wartime mission to build atomic bombs. The site had stopped producing plutonium by 1989, when the cleanup began.
The 560-square-mile nuclear reservation is considered the Western Hemisphere’s most polluted place. Highly radioactive waste threatens the Columbia River and contaminates soil and ground water. The most dangerous waste is stored in huge milliongallon tanks, some of which leak.
No major radioactive mess has yet been cleaned up.
The Senate report concludes by noting that federal cash sent to Hanford is pulled in too many conflicting directions by the project’s various interest groups.
xxxx ‘Wasteland’ For more information about Hanford, reprints of The Spokesman-Review series “Wasteland” are available for 50 cents each at the newspaper’s downtown Spokane office, 999 W. Riverside, or by calling 459-5196. The stories examine spending practices at the nuclear reservation.
Targeting Hanford A Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee study concludes: “There is almost no aspect of the current approach to cleaning up Hanford that can withstand close scrutiny.” Hanford managers realize the need for major personnel cuts, but “DOE and its contractors do not seem to have a coherent plan for downsizing.” Hanford spending is not prioritized according to environmental risk or costeffectiveness.
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Jim Lynch Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.