A harder line on Hanford

The art of misdirection: As magicians know, the technique is to focus audience attention on one thing (consider the government shutdown the political version of “there’s nothing up my sleeve”) to distract from something else (the feds punting responsibility for clean up of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.) Misdirection requires strategic pondering that doesn’t come natural to federal flacks, so the department embraces the obvious: Who pays attention to Hanford when the United States is about to default?

On Tuesday, officials from the U.S Department of Energy (those deemed essential workers) let the office of Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson know that the federal government is at “substantial risk” for failing to meet three milestones demanded by the 2010 Hanford clean-up consent decree (Message: Sorry about that!)

As Ferguson’s office points out, the delay would have a domino effect on all deadlines agreed to in the consent decree for the operation and construction of the Hanford waste treatment plant designed to transform high-level radioactive waste into glassified “logs,” a process known as vitrification. As a result, all of the deadlines from now until 2022 are in jeopardy.

The DOE announcement comes on the heels of a report last week by the Energy Department’s inspector general, Gregory Friedman, that Bechtel, the builder of the $12.2 billion vitrification plant, has not been applying quality assurance standards to critically important parts of the facility. Confidence, this does not engender.

An action-forcing event, at least in theory, was the Energy Department’s announcement in February that seven of 177 underground tanks at Hanford were leaking (a “decrease of liquid level” in department-speak.)

There are two options available to Gov. Jay Inslee and Ferguson. The state can continue to develop a dialogue with the new U.S. Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz, and hope that soft elbows persuade a hidebound department to keep its promises. Or the state can take a hard line and exercise its legal options.

In an email, Inslee communications director David Postman said that the governor was concerned and disappointed by the news. “The governor heard about the missed deadlines earlier Tuesday in a call from the secretary,” Postman writes. “The governor appreciates the secretary’s continued engagement with this issue of great importance to Washingtonians.”

Continued dialogue, however much encouraged, is not an approach that’s going to work. Keep the lines open, but sue to compel the Energy Department to stop its heel-dragging. The United States can’t wait for a Tri City Chernobyl to prioritize clean up.

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