February 16, 2013 in Opinion

Guest opinion: Hanford cleanup merits urgency

Nils J. Diaz
 

America has shown that we are best in times of challenge, when our unity and perseverance have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. In this regard, we must rise to the challenge of resolving our nation’s nuclear weapons waste legacy.

World War II and the Cold War stand out for the sacrifice and unity of our people. Workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation tolerated risks to their well-being and environment potentially posed by nuclear weapons waste produced over one-half a century. It is time to treat the immobilization and disposal of the high-level radioactive waste at the Hanford site as a national priority issue, one with vital implications to the socioeconomic security and general welfare of our people, and to the nation.

The U.S. government has been very clear about the need to protect the general welfare of those who could be affected by the development, stewardship and disposition of nuclear weapons legacy materials. Yet, while the U.S. Department of Energy has expended major efforts directed at resolving the myriad of technical and policy issues at Hanford, a lack of consistent decision-making has delayed immobilization of Hanford’s liquid wastes.

The status of the estimated 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive and chemical waste stored in the tank farm at Hanford is a source of continuing debate that was supposed to have ended with its stabilization and vitrification at the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP). The closure of the Hanford waste issue has been strongly supported by the people of Washington, and by state executives. It has been funded by Congress during the last decade, and is recognized by cognizant agencies as an urgent issue. Nowhere is this unity of purpose more apparent than in the goals set by the comprehensive Tri-Party Agreement of 1989 among the state of Washington, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy regarding the treatment of Hanford waste.

However, nowhere has lack of effective decision-making been more apparent than at the long-delayed WTP. It has been frequently described as one of the most important and largest public works projects in the history of the United States, yet it languishes because focus on prioritization of the overall safety issues has become obscured by a laundry list of technical and management decisions that have caused multiple changes in design and direction, which are then compounded by funding problems, which then create more changes and delays. We could spend another generation arguing about it and its cost, meanwhile allowing the risk to the people and the nation to escalate further.

 The WTP, with its controlled operating environment, would be much safer than depending on the unknown effectiveness of aging tanks. We appear to have an opportunity now with the latest efforts to reduce the WTP technical challenges to a practical plan, final design and schedule.

A new and better plan is being formulated with urgency. It will not be perfect, yet overall safety will be actively managed by an operating WTP, and potential hazards will be diminishing. The plan should be expeditiously approved and implemented, funded and fully supported to completion, without further delay. Leadership in assuring that continuing progress is made by the next secretary of energy is critical.

We need a sustained call to action to remove the Hanford wastes hazard, and an operating WTP is the only viable solution. We know how to come together as a nation to prevent and respond to catastrophes. Acting decisively now to eliminate the challenge of the Hanford waste is the right thing to do. And so we must.

Nils Diaz is a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and has more than 40 years of nuclear experience covering civilian and defense applications.He isthe managing director of the ND2 Group, a nuclear policy adviser group focused on national and international nuclear power deployment. He served as vice chair of the Independent Safety and Quality Culture Assessment Team at Hanford in 2011.

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