More Hanford delays? Unacceptable

The OlympianOctober 17, 2013 

HANDFORD INITIATIVE

** FILE ** Workers remove solid waste along the Columbia River corridor near two dormant nuclear reactors on the Hanford nuclear reservation, near Richland, Wash., May 6, 2004. Critics of a Washington state initiative barring the federal government from shipping nuclear waste to the Hanford nuclear site until existing waste there is cleaned up, argue the dangers of other states taking similar action and banning Handford waste. (AP Photo/Jackie Johnston, File)

JACKIE JOHNSTON — AP

The news coming out of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation has been bad, and it’s getting worse. The U.S. Department of Energy announced in June that it would miss two cleanup deadlines, and last week said it would miss three more.

The state of Washington sued the federal agency in 2010 over previously missed deadlines for emptying the 177 underground tanks stewing with radioactive sludge. The lawsuit was resolved by a legally binding consent decree that set deadlines for DOE to clean up 19 tanks.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the latest notice of more missed deadlines means the DOE is out of compliance with the consent decree through at least 2022. It’s unacceptable.

Ferguson should consider a new lawsuit, and our congressional delegation should start applying renewed political pressure.

Hanford was created to produce the plutonium for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, and it continued to build nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. That activity left 56 million gallons of highly radioactive waster buried at Hanford.

Last February, the Energy Department revealed that seven of the tanks are leaking, slowly oozing toxic waste into the soil just miles from the Columbia River. It will be a catastrophic disaster for the Northwest if, or when, the waste reaches the river.

Could there be any worse news? Consider that the Department of Energy also recently announced that the contractor building the waste treatment (vitrification) plant has failed quality assurance standards on a $4.3 billion project that has already ballooned to $12.3 billion.

Also consider that the senior scientist who blew the whistle back in 2011 about design flaws in the waste treatment plant was first demoted and confined to work in a basement room. Last week, he was fired.

Taken cumulatively, the Hanford cleanup project is a mess. We’ve spent $40 billion so far, and expect to spend at least another $115 billion. But for that amount of money, there’s no end in sight.

Instead of tilting at health care reform windmills, Congress should be holding the president and the Department of Energy accountable for its failure to clean up a 70-year-old problem.

Ferguson should speed things along with another lawsuit.

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