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Hanford becomes comical punching bag for HBO’s John Oliver

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 21, 2017, 11:27 p.m.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, left, closely observes as worker trainers Joni Spencer, center, and Dean Beaver prepare to give a respirator demonstration, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017, at the HAMMER Training Facility in Richland, Wash. The federal facility offers a wide variety of training to Hanford Nuclear Reservation workers. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., stands next to Perry and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., stands  between the workers at right. (Bob Brawdy / Associated Press)
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, left, closely observes as worker trainers Joni Spencer, center, and Dean Beaver prepare to give a respirator demonstration, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017, at the HAMMER Training Facility in Richland, Wash. The federal facility offers a wide variety of training to Hanford Nuclear Reservation workers. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., stands next to Perry and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., stands between the workers at right. (Bob Brawdy / Associated Press)

Just days after Energy Secretary Rick Perry made his first trip to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, HBO’s John Oliver used the polluted nuclear site as a satirical punching bag for the nation’s decades of failure to find a permanent storage solution for the millions of gallons of nuclear waste.

In the Sunday episode of “Last week Tonight with John Oliver,” the comic pointed out that the U.S. government has failed to create a permanent repository for nuclear waste since the National Academy of Sciences suggested the idea in 1957.

Instead, Oliver pointed out that most nuclear plants around the country continue to store spent fuel rods even though those facilities were not designed to compile the nuclear waste.

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“The most frightening example of this is the Hanford site in Washington state which created two-thirds of the plutonium in the U.S. arsenal and is currently storing 56 million gallons of highly toxic and nuclear waste underground,” Oliver said.

He then ripped a local news broadcast that called Hanford the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere.

“Oh it’s right here. We did it guys. Washington state,” Oliver said. “Home to the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere. Thousands of acres of apple orchards and several of Ted Bundy’s grisliest murders. We did it right here.”

Between the gibes, Oliver mentioned the continued health risks at Hanford, including a recent plutonium leak, and criticized officials for the design of a tunnel that collapsed on May 9. Some of the wooden timbers gave way in the tunnel, which exposed highly contaminated machinery.

“You can’t build something out of wood and expect it to last forever,” Oliver said. “You should have learned this from the second dumbest of the ‘Three Little Pigs.’ ”

Department of Energy spokesman Geoff Tyree declined on Monday to comment. “We don’t typically comment on entertainment shows.”

David Reeploeg, vice president of the Tri-City Development Council, said he didn’t see Oliver’s show but generally agrees with its premise.

“Waste is being stored at the Hanford site in tanks that were never designed or intended to serve as a permanent repository, which is why we think it is imperative that the federal government move forward with Yucca Mountain as quickly as possible,” he said.

Destry Henderson, spokesman for major Hanford contractor CH2MHill, had seen Oliver’s clip.

“We weren’t named in the story so we have no comment,” Henderson said.

Just last week, Hanford received its first visit from Perry, who toured a number of dams and other facilities in the Northwest.

“Hanford has some byproducts that 65 years ago we might not have known were going to be there,” Perry said. “It’s our responsibility in this generation to make sure that the next generation knows that everything was done as practically, as economically, as safely as we could to make sure their future is bright.”

Oliver touched on that history, noting that Congress in 1987 passed a law designating Yucca Mountain as its sole candidate for a permanent-nuclear waste storage facility. However, after $15 billion was spent to prepare the site, it hasn’t become the answer.

“We’ve been saying that we were going to fix this for decades now and we seem to be no closer to a solution,” Oliver said. “We are dancing with trouble here. So if anyone says the government can just continue to wait, they are much like a house without a toilet, absolutely full of …”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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