The most contaminated nuclear site in North America is throwing off clues that clean up must be accelerated. Or else.
It began with one 530,000-gallon, single-shell tank out of 177. On Feb. 15, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that the tank, which dates to World War II, is leaking radioactive sludge at a rate of 150 to 300 gallons per year. A week later, on Feb. 22, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Gov. Jay Inslee in a meeting that there are six leaking tanks. Why the discrepancy? In a press release last Friday, Inslee said Chu told him that the Energy Department had “not adequately analyzed the data it had that would have shown the other tanks that are leaking.”
The phrase “not adequately analyzed” — like the Energy Department’s euphemism for leaks as “a decrease of liquid levels” — is disquieting. To paraphrase the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, a tank here, a tank there, pretty soon you’re talking real radiation.
Inslee, an enviro watchdog, has worked to allay fears. “There is no immediate or near-term health risk associated with these newly discovered leaks, which are more than 10 miles from the Columbia River,” he said in a statement. Six minutes later, the press release was amended. Inslee meant to say “more than 5 miles from the Columbia River.” (At least there wasn’t a subsequent, it’s-even-closer correction.)
Gov. Inslee, like Attorney General Bob Ferguson, didn’t anticipate a Hanford baptism by fire, but both are ramping up and putting heat on the feds. A united front would be a propitious sign. One bureaucratic obstacle centers on Chu’s successor and how quickly she or he gets coached in all things Hanford (a compelling reason for President Obama to nominate Gov. Gregoire as energy secretary.)
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 a 2010 consent decree. Under the Tri-Party Agreement, the vitrification plant to transform the plutonium into a stable, storable material was to be finished in 1997. Now it will be 2019. Maybe.
Every legal knife will be sharpened, every back channel and informal action considered. Otherwise, the federal government’s condescending “over there” mindset could supplant common sense.
“In the grand tradition of the American frontier, the ‘dirty jobs’ were sent ‘out West,’” writes Michele Stenehjem Gerber in “On the Home Front,” her Hanford history. “It is possible to make the case that one cannot understand the twentieth century unless one understands the Cold War, and one cannot understand the Cold War without knowing the Hanford site.” We know it all right.