October 11, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Hanford cleanup’s toxic legacy continues

 
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Background and the latest updates

The U.S. Energy Department says fat chance of meeting interim deadlines for cleaning up the nuclear site that produced Fat Boy, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, which accelerated the end of World War II.

It’s not that the federal agency is being defiant, but the results are the same. Predictably the same.

Hanford’s last reactor was shut down in 1987. Two years later, the clean-up began. It’s now on its eighth secretary of energy, and they all have one thing in common: overseeing delays. From James Watkins to Ernest Moniz, the clean-up at Hanford has been unable to stay on pace.

Because of previously missed deadlines, the state of Washington sued, and the result was a court-ordered consent decree in 2010 that set interim deadlines for the production of a massive vitrification plant that would turn the waste into glass logs for permanent storage. The price tag has ballooned from $4.3 billion to $12.3 billion for a project that was supposed to be completed in 2020.

However, the Energy Department issued a brief statement on Wednesday, saying the agency is at risk of missing three mileposts on the vitrification project. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson says this could mean all deadlines get pushed back and the plant won’t get built on time.

The headlines on missed deadlines have been so numbingly routine that it’s easy to lose sight of the stakes at the nation’s most polluted site. The most urgent chore is disposing of 177 creaky underground tanks holding 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Some of them have leaked, producing an underground plume that’s edging toward the largest river in the Northwest. If the Columbia River were to become contaminated, the results would be potentially catastrophic. The Energy Department announced early this year that seven tanks currently are leaking, six outside their shells.

Even if the vitrification plant were to be built on time, another federal delaying action could impede the removal of the glass logs, because they need a permanent storage site. An underground repository was supposed to be opened in 1998, but politics has delayed any progress. In 2008, the Bush administration submitted an application for a site beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but when President Obama took office he ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shut down that process as a political favor to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Over the summer, a U.S. District Court smacked the administration for flouting waste-disposal agreements. The government has already spent $15 billion preparing the Yucca site, and another $200 million or so has been raised from Northwest utility customers for the project.

The foot-dragging on cleaning up Hanford — and 80 other U.S. sites storing radioactive waste — lies in stark contrast to the urgency to produce the weapons that helped end World War II.

The Hanford project was a proud moment for the government and everyone involved. But the clean-up is building a toxic legacy.

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