RICHLAND — New Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was set to make his first visit Wednesday to the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site since being confirmed by the Senate last month.
His visit comes amid increasing criticism of the Energy Department’s management of the cleanup effort at south-central Washington’s Hanford nuclear reservation, which receives roughly one-third of the agency’s annual budget for nuclear waste cleanup nationally.
Moniz vowed during his confirmation hearings to visit Hanford and to work to secure money to ensure cleanup there is finished. But the department recently notified Washington and Oregon that it may not meet two upcoming deadlines to empty some underground tanks of radioactive waste and to complete part of a plant to treat that waste.
The federal government created Hanford at the height of World War II as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. The site produced plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending the war, and continued production through the Cold War.
Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup expected to last decades and cost billions of dollars.
Central to the cleanup: the removal of 56 million gallons of highly toxic, radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks. Many of those tanks are known to have leaked in the past, and the Energy Department has announced that seven tanks, including one double-shelled tank that is leaking between its two walls, are leaking anew.
In all, since the very first tank leak in the 1950s, at least 69 tanks are known to have excreted more than 1 million gallons of waste — and possibly far more — into the soil.
The permanent solution to eradicating Hanford’s waste is a plant being built that would encase the waste in glass-like logs for disposal deep underground. The vitrification plant is among the largest industrial construction projects nationally, both in cost and sheer size. Originally bid at $4.3 billion, the price tag has since grown to more than $12.3 billion, a figure that is expected to rise even further.
Once targeted for completion in 2011, the plant now won’t be operating before 2019.
Hanford cleanup has cost taxpayers $36 billion to date and is estimated will cost $115 billion more.