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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Moniz must solve the Hanford problem

The United States has a new energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, who was sworn in May 21 after unanimous Senate confirmation. He told senators a visit to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation would be a top priority, and he is expected to follow through on that pledge within the next few weeks.

No need to tell anyone in Eastern Washington that Moniz has a full, fissionable plate in front of him. Friday’s Department of Energy notices to the states of Washington and Oregon that two cleanup deadlines will be missed merely confirmed the obvious.

Construction of the plant that will encapsulate the most potent nuclear waste in glass has become a nightmare. Work began before engineers had solved – or anticipated – all the challenges of retrieving, separating and processing waste that will remain radioactive for millennia. Meanwhile, some of the 177 tanks containing material that dates to World War II and the Manhattan Project continue to leak, threatening the Columbia River.

Even the composition of some of that material remains a mystery.

And the price tag to complete and operate the plant now runs to more than $100 billion.

Moniz is a nuclear physicist, former undersecretary of energy and co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. He gets the problem. But solutions seem as elusive as the “God Particle” considered fundamental to our understanding of the atom.

The problems are not limited to Hanford.

The Obama administration in 2009 terminated the permitting of the Yucca Mountain repository where Hanford’s glass logs and other high-level nuclear waste was supposed to be permanently buried. Moniz predecessor Steven Chu talked about using empty salt domes for storage, but no final alternative has been identified.

Nuclear plant operators have put more than $30 billion in a fund for repository construction, and have so far gotten nothing in return.

The state of Washington has sued to get Yucca Mountain back on track. As long as Nevadan Harry Reid remains Senate majority leader, the fight is going to be uphill.

Coincidentally with the notice of Hanford’s problems, a private repository in West Texas has begun to accept low-level nuclear waste. The owner, a major donor to Republicans, is pressing for permits that would allow Waste Control Specialists to store some of the nastier stuff no one else wants. The pliable Texas Legislature has been accommodating.

His money may triumph over physics, but how different is that from the state of affairs in Nevada, where politics prevailed after the federal government spent $12 billion?

At his confirmation hearing, Moniz told senators Chu made Hanford the No. 1 topic of discussion when they met. When he completes his tour of the vast facility, he must return to the other Washington with a sense of urgency about the project’s future, and how much longer its incredible cost overruns can continue.