Concern over the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere, tracks with headlines of leaking radioactive gunk. Then attention wanes. Again.
The public’s short-term focus may be a coping mechanism. Nuclear war was too unimaginable. Today, the detritus of plutonium, the tangible legacy of the Cold War, is so extensive and dangerous that it’s easier to compartmentalize into the “ain’t gonna think about it” drawer.
Last week, The Associated Press reported that Hanford’s newer, double-walled storage tanks exhibit significant construction flaws. This magnifies the urgency for a comprehensive cleanup. Conventional wisdom had aging tanks dating from the 1940s and ‘50s as the menace. It’s much bigger than that.
The tank imbroglio began with one 530,000-gallon, single-shell tank out of 177. In February 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that the tank, which dates to World War II, was leaking radioactive sludge at a rate of 150 to 300 gallons per year. A week later, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Gov. Jay Inslee in a meeting that there were six tanks.
All of this is maddening for longtime Hanford watchers such as Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, until recently the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“Watching the U.S. Department of Energy trying to clean up the Hanford nuclear weapons production site up the Columbia River in Washington is a bit like watching the movie Groundhog Day: The problems at the site repeat over and over,” Wyden said Saturday. “It’s time to end the ever repeating excuses that mark DOE clean-up efforts at Hanford. It’s time for the movie to be over.”
In October, officials from DOE informed Attorney General Bob Ferguson that the federal government was at “substantial risk” for failing to meet three milestones demanded by the 2010 Hanford clean-up consent decree.
The delay will have a domino effect on all deadlines agreed to in the 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.
The state has a variety of options to ratchet pressure, including the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement, the Hazardous Waste Management Act enforced by the Department of Ecology, and a pre-existing court case, a 2008 lawsuit that resulted in the 2010 consent decree.
The latest news is the tipping point. Washington must now take a hard line and exercise its legal options.