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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Policy void dogs cleanup of N-waste at Hanford

The proposed shipment of Hanford Nuclear Reservation waste to New Mexico will not solve the leak problem, even if officials there accept the transferred material.

But that plan apparently offers the only way forward in the vacuum that is nuclear policy pending a resolution of the sequestration issue, hearings on a new energy secretary, and action on a state lawsuit heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals last May.

That certainly seems to be the position of Gov. Jay Inslee, who issued a statement prior to a tour of Hanford last week that he was “heartened” by a sign the U.S. Department of Energy is giving the nation’s largest nuclear wasteland renewed attention. He added, prudently, that the shipments must not be a distraction from construction of the vitrification plant that will be the ultimate solution to neutralizing waste that has lingered since World War II.

As to New Mexico, all officials there have received so far is an informal notice DOE will be seeking modifications to the permit covering the types of waste that can be stored at a facility near Carlsbad. Obviously, there is a lot of work to do at that end.

Progress on the vitrification plant, which will isolate high-level waste in glass blocks, has repeatedly been tripped up by engineering issues unforeseen when construction began. The design-as-you-go methodology intended to speed completion has not worked, and there is little expectation the facility will be ready by the envisioned deadline in 2019. The possible layoff of 1,000 workers because of sequestration-driven budget cuts will not help.

But vitrification that, once started, is expected to continue through at least 2047 will not end the journey. The glassified waste must be stored in an underground storage facility, specifically Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But DOE in 2010 abandoned its attempt to get a permit for the site. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, a nuclear physicist, and President Barack Obama are not willing to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who will have nothing to do with Yucca.

Northwest utility customers have paid almost $190 million into a fund that was supposed to pay for Yucca, and so far have gotten nothing for their money.

The state of Washington has also sued to get work at Yucca renewed, but there is no guarantee the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., will act on the litigation, on which it heard arguments 10 months ago.

With Chu on his way out, upcoming hearings on proposed successor Ernest Moniz may be the only way to get discussion of long-term nuclear waste storage back on the table. Moniz spoke well of Yucca when he was energy undersecretary in the Clinton administration.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell will have the opportunity to question Moniz about his position now. Washington residents deserve some straight answers about the safe disposal of substances that will remain with us for generations.

A blue-ribbon commission formed to study the waste issue – Moniz was a member – said progress will require a “consent-based approach.”

There’s nothing consensual about the state of affairs today.