U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has traveled to Washington twice since his confirmation last May. He deserves credit for his willingness to engage state officials, as he did Monday with Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Unfortunately, the plan Moniz outlined for cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation fell short of expectations. Outlined, because he had no tangible plan with him. State officials expect one next month, but statements from Inslee and Ferguson issued after the meeting suggest the state will be huddling with the Department of Ecology to determine what Washington’s next move might be.
Tanks holding Hanford’s 56 million gallons of nuclear waste are leaking. Runaway radioactivity – in groundwater or the atmosphere – has always been a threat at the World War II-era reservation, where plutonium was isolated for use in nuclear weapons. Production stopped in the mid-1980s, but processing created a witch’s brew of material that has corroded the 100-plus single- and double-walled tanks designed to contain it.
Now, tanks that officials expected would last long enough to allow scientists to find, and contractors to build, a more permanent solution to the problem are failing. The vitrification plant where the worst of the stuff will be contained in glass logs is years and billions over budget, with some technical questions still unresolved.
Washington negotiated agreements with the Energy Department in 1989 and 2010, but deadlines have slipped every time contractors encounter a new problem. And the encounters just keep coming, although there has been some progress.
The 16 tanks in the C “farm,” one of several at Hanford, were supposed to be emptied by year-end. As of January, 10 were empty and work on three more was underway.
But Hanford frustrates not just because the technical challenges are so big, but because whistleblowers find themselves out on the pavement, and taxpayers pay the costs of the ensuing lawsuits and other litigation.
Hanford absorbs $2 billion of the federal budget every year. A $60 million cut proposed by the Obama administration is more symbolic than material.
Tuesday, South Carolina sued the Energy Department because the budget shuts down work at the Savannah River plant where more than 13 tons of plutonium are stored. The department says costs there are out of control and the project needs rethinking.
From the point of view of the White House, the same probably applies to South Carolina’s all-Republican congressional delegation and GOP governor.
If Washington’s only recourse is a return to the courthouse, more stress should be placed on a solution that gets more waste out of the state, possibly to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. A recent fire there brought defects in training and equipment to light, but the community there has been receptive to more shipments of material.
At the present pace, Hanford leaks are going to outrun reclamation efforts.