At a budget meeting last May, Hanford Nuclear Reservation officials announced the ongoing cleanup would need $3.6 billion for fiscal 2016. That’s $1.5 billion more than the Obama administration requested. Congress isn’t likely to make up the difference.
Nodding to that reality, Dave Einan, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told the Tri-City Herald, “We’re going to have to prioritize.”
That would be a nice change. Setting priorities has never been a priority at this massive project. However, two local groups hope to intercede and bring more sanity to the process, and protect those most vulnerable to any potential problems.
The Tri-City Development Council and Hanford Communities, a coalition of local governments, want a seat at the table, something they wished they’d pushed for when the Tri-Party Agreement was signed in 1989, and when a consent decree between the state and the feds was agreed upon in 2010.
As is, the state of Washington, federal agencies and contractors engage in complex infighting over deadlines for projects that should be further down the list of priorities. Meanwhile, the communities most affected watch in frustration. Last month, TRIDEC and Hanford Communities filed a “friend of the court” brief in a consent decree standoff in the hopes of bridging the wide gulf between the state and the federal governments.
The consent decree set deadlines for emptying 19 of 177 underground tanks holding 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. The state wants the U.S. Department of Energy to build more double-shelled tanks, at a cost of $480 million. The feds have announced they can’t meet deadlines and want to amend the consent decree.
Tri-City officials say it would take 200 years for any leakage from the tank farm plateau to reach the Columbia River, and that all pumpable liquids have been removed from leaking tanks. Meanwhile, EPA began fining DOE in October for missing deadlines on the removal of radioactive sludge at K Basin, which sits right along the river. The cleanup deadline has already been extended 13 years, even though the EPA has emphasized the potential hazard. DOE blames lack of funds for missed deadlines.
If the Hanford cleanup were to be prioritized, the $480 million sought for a remote threat would be spent on a more immediate one, such as K Basin. And one federal agency wouldn’t be fining another.
Another example: The $177 million to $194 million being sought to “pump and treat” groundwater beneath the cocooned F Reactor. The merits are questionable, but even if it were advisable, the money being spent there would be money not spent on K Basin and other higher priorities.
About $40 billion has been spent cleaning up Hanford, and a lot has been accomplished. But it could cost another $115 billion to get the job done. It’s not too late to set priorities and spend these vast sums more wisely.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter