Seventy years ago last Friday, the first full-scale nuclear reactor began operating at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The “B Reactor,” as it was known, made the plutonium used in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It launched the world’s Atomic Age.
This coming weekend will mark another important moment in Hanford’s history. It’s the end of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Mr. Nice Guy attitude about the U.S. Department of Energy’s failure to clean up millions of gallons of radioactive toxic sludge slowly leaking into state of Washington soil.
Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced on Sept. 5 they would no longer tolerate the DOE’s inept attempts to meet cleanup deadlines. They gave the federal agency 30 days-notice before asking the courts to intervene and enforce the decree.
It’s about time. The state has been too lenient about the federal government’s responsibility to clean up Hanford.
Hanford stores two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear waste. Experts consider it the most contaminated site in the nation. There are 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste stored in 177 single-wall steel tanks buried under ground – some of which were built in 1943.
The DOE has known since 1956 that the tanks were leaking. By 1968, the DOE had confirmed that a toxic sludge, which will remain radioactive for hundreds of years, was oozing from the aging tanks. It’s gotten worse since then, and now even the newer double-walled tanks are leaking.
The cleanup began nearly a quarter-century ago. But after spending more than $36 billion, repeated technical glitches and project mismanagement have produced little more than delay after delay.
Washington sued the federal government in 2008 over the slow progress. That resulted in the 2010 Hanford Cleanup Consent Decree, which set deadlines and requirements for the DOE, including a plant to treat radioactive waste and waste removed from single-wall tanks.
The agency has failed on almost every score.
The 2010 decree also included a provision for dispute resolution, which began in March and has now ended without success. So, the state has no alternative but to turn back to the courts for help.
It should never have reached this point.
The search for safe storage of nuclear waste began nearly 60 years ago. In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences recommended disposing of the spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste in geologically stable rock formations deep underground.
It took the Department of Energy until 1978 to identify Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the best place to bury nuclear waste.
But when Nevada Sen. Harry Reid ascended to Senate Majority Leader after the 2006 mid-term elections, he promised to kill the project. President Obama shamefully obliged Reid by shutting Yucca Mountain down in 2010, just when it was on the verge of accepting some of the more than 70,000 metric tons that have accumulated at 121 sites around the nation.
It’s a complex problem. But that’s no excuse for DOE to ignore a court order to finish the treatment plant and pump out the leaking tanks, and to get it done before the leaking sludge reaches the Columbia River.