For Ernest Moniz, today is baptism-by-Hanford. Elbowed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, the newly minted U.S. Energy Secretary pledged to visit the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and he’s keeping his word.
“The U.S. Secretary of Energy is absolutely right to put Hanford cleanup at the top of his ‘to-do list,’” said Cantwell. “I’m pleased that Secretary Moniz is giving Hanford the attention it deserves and visiting in his first month on the job. Hanford is one of the most complex and largest contaminated nuclear cleanup projects in the world — and we need to ensure the federal government lives up to its commitment on cleanup.”
Moniz, a distinguished theoretical physicist, will soon learn there’s nothing theoretical about the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere. In the shrub-steppe desert of Washington’s Columbia basin sits (or more accurately, festers) 53 million gallons of the nation’s most highly radioactive nuclear waste.
For deciders in the other Washington, a multi billion-dollar cleanup in the sequestration era is a punt-worthy “over there” football. On June 7, Moniz telephoned Gov. Jay Inslee to let him know that the department likely won’t meet two 2014 deadlines related to the 2010 Hanford Cleanup Consent Decree. These projects include waste retrieval from two of Hanford’s aging single-shell tanks and finishing construction of a Low Activity Waste Facility (“low activity” is the operative description of work thus far.) To add isotope to injury (a radioactive pun) the department has missed two other waste-treatment deadlines sans explanation.
“The U.S. Department of Energy must show the state that it is doing everything within its power to avoid or minimize any possible delays,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “We expect the federal government to provide the state with specific reasons for the delays, the nature of the review by USDOE and its contractors, the environmental risks of the delay, and the recovery schedule USDOE proposes for completion of these milestones.”
Here’s betting they haven’t thought that far in advance.
Thankfully Americans can learn the backstory with the recent House passage of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act. Visitors will tour the historic B Reactor and hear about the scale and the physics involved. Emboldened, they can contact lawmakers and demand action.
It ain’t sexy, but cleanup must be the primary focus of Moniz’s cabinet tenure. The former MIT professor will be part of a distinguished continuum: What it took Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi to conceive, it took Ernest Moniz to make right.