Residents of the Pacific Northwest can be forgiven if they don’t share the confidence and enthusiasm that a lineup of state and federal officials showed last week when they announced the latest agreement about cleaning up radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
They have been hearing optimistic promises for 20 years, and yet the expected completion date for the cleanup is now further off than ever.
The costly job involves retrieving some 53 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste from 177 underground single-shell storage tanks, moving it to safer double-shell tanks and eventually running it through a waste treatment plant now under construction.
In 1989, the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed an agreement that called for the process to be completed in 30 years. Deadline after deadline has been missed, however, and the state has twice turned to federal courts for help.
Now a consent decree is to be filed with the federal court, followed by a 45-day public comment period beginning Sept. 24. Ultimately, this deal establishes a new schedule under which all waste would be retrieved by 2040 and treated by 2047. That’s decades later than it would have been under the 30-year schedule called for by the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement.
A sampling of Spokesman-Review headlines over the past 20 years adds up to a saga of deadlines missed and extensions granted:
“State extends nuclear cleanup,” March 28, 1998.
“DOE behind on removal of N-waste,” July 13, 2002.
“N-waste plant to miss legal deadline,” Jan. 8, 2005.
“Extensions sought for Hanford,” Nov. 9, 2008.
And so on, and so on.
Nevertheless, officials who joined in last week’s announcement are optimistic that this time the deadlines are aggressive but realistic and, most of all, “enforceable.”
What may make this different from all the earlier agreements and amendments – also presumably enforceable – is that it includes a built-in set of milestones and reviews that will alert regulatory bodies and the public of any slippage, which could trigger immediate court intervention.
Better yet, when the Department of Energy issues a draft environmental impact statement in the fall, it will include a “preferred alternative” that no more radioactive waste be brought to the site until the waste treatment facility is ready. That alone, assuming full compliance, would at least assure that conditions at Hanford don’t get worse before they get better.
Unfortunately, enforceability means little more than that one set of taxpayers can take another to court if things go wrong. That isn’t what will achieve Hanford cleanup. It will happen only if all the state and federal agencies and political leaders keep their promises to provide the resources.
Until then, a little public skepticism is to be expected.