In Our View: Focus on Hanford

Federal foot-dragging continues, and what about the Yucca Mountain plan?

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Recent news about the Hanford nuclear reservation near Tri-Cities has not been encouraging. And the lack of news about the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada is equally troubling.

Last week U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., grilled Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu at a Senate hearing and properly reproached him for federal foot-dragging in cleanup efforts at Hanford. According to The News Tribune in Tacoma, Murray described proposed funding as “discouraging.” She urged the Obama administration to take more seriously its duty to properly fund the removal of nuclear contamination that predates the Cold War. “It is a legal obligation. It is a moral obligation. It is a real obligation,” Murray told Chu. “We have waste at the nuclear facility that is leaking toward the Columbia River.”

Such is not a new revelation, but it’s a stark reminder to Clark County residents 200 miles downstream from the former atomic bomb factory, indeed to all Pacific Northwest residents. The U.S. government created the toxic plume that’s moving toward the river, and the feds must clean it up.

The DOE’s budget shows an increase from $690 million in 2010 to $840 million in 2012 for the vitrification plant that ultimately will cost $12.2 billion and could start operating in 2019. That increase is offset in part by a $75 million decrease at the Hanford Richland Operations Office, which oversees other environmental cleanup projects.

Murray must continue to hold the administration’s feet to the fire on Hanford funding. More directly, that means pressuring Chu and others at the DOE as they disburse the money.

Meanwhile, more federal foot-dragging continues at Yucca Mountain, which was determined to be the best site for a permanent repository of nuclear waste. That would be much preferable to stashing the deadly stuff at numerous sites around the country. The Nevada plan was shelved for purely political reasons as campaigns intensified for the 2010 election and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., became engaged in a desperate defense of his post. Well, Reid has been re-elected and it’s time for the federal government to resume the Yucca Mountain project, where it already has spent almost $15 billion. And the Tri-City Herald cites an independent source — the Government Accountability Office — for the most damaging evidence of continued neglect of Yucca Mountain. The GAO this month said that, without the Yucca Mountain project, nuclear waste storage costs at Hanford could soar by $918 million. Even regardless of the cost, storing more waste at Hanford is an awful idea.

The GAO declared that the decision to abandon the Nevada project was made for policy reasons, not technical or safety reasons. The agency noted that several “DOE officials told us that they had never seen such a large program with so much pressure to close down so quickly.”

That’s a disgrace. It’s time to take the politics out of the Yucca Mountain project and return to the solid science that supports the extensively researched plan. As an editorial in the Herald concluded: “The disaster under way at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (in Japan) illustrates the danger of indefinitely storing spent fuel rods in reactor cooling ponds.” A permanent repository is needed.

There never has been a reason for federal intransigence on the nuclear waste issue, and as decades pass, the neglect of duty becomes even more dangerous.