In Our View: More Bad News at Hanford

New potential leak discovered; feds must stop the foot-dragging

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There is scant reason to ever feel encouraged about cleaning up the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, especially when it's occurring in the southeast corner of our beautiful and cherished Washington state. But what happened last week at Hanford Nuclear Reservation about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver provided some hope for progress.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz visited Hanford, and Kennewick Mayor Steve Young was quoted in the Tri-City Herald: "It's been a long time since I've been this positive about what I was hearing out of D.C., but this man (Moniz) really gets it."

Such optimism is understandable but quickly tempered when considering what did NOT happen in 30 years leading up to Moniz's visit, and then what DID happen the very next day. According to the Herald, citing Young, "Moniz was the first energy secretary to meet with Mid-Columbia elected officials in the 30 years (Young) has been involved with the nuclear reservation." The newspaper correctly editorialized: "That's a shameful record and Moniz deserves credit for breaking it."

But then on Thursday came troubling news from the U.S. Energy Department that an underground tank holding highly radioactive waste might be leaking into the soil. Officials are unsure of the exact nature of the leak; it could be contained in a pit under the tank. Further tests are needed. There is no immediate public health threat, and the Columbia River is not at immediate risk of contamination. But that pesky word "immediate" is worrisome when you're talking about long-term effects of more than six decades of nuclear waste contamination.

All the more reason for the federal government to stop dragging its feet and accelerate the cleanup of Hanford. Maybe the visit by Moniz will help. After all, he's a nuclear physicist and former undersecretary of energy and co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Future. But we remain skeptical, especially after listening to other informed officials:

Gov. Jay Inslee said the latest potential leak "raises very troubling questions. … If we do not receive satisfaction (in meetings with federal officials in the next few weeks), we have several legal options available to us. And we'll act accordingly.

Ken Niles, the Oregon Department of Energy's nuclear safety division administrator, was quoted by The Associated Press on the subject of the Hanford cleanup: "These last few months just seem like one body blow after another. It's true this is not an immediate risk, but it's one more thing to deal with among many at Hanford."

Tony Carpenter, executive director of the Seattle-based advocacy group Hanford Challenge, sounded more alarmed: "This is really, really bad. They are going to pollute the ground and the groundwater with some of the nastiest stuff, and they don't have a solution for it."

Mike Geffree, who works for contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, spoke about radioactivity measurements in water samples: "Anything above a 500 count is considered contaminated and would have to be disposed of as nuclear waste." The count from the pit of the leaking tank, the AP reports, was 800,000.

We realize that, with the cost of the cleanup (more than $115 billion, but still climbing) surpassing the cost of three dozen Columbia River Crossings, the feds might be reluctant to pick up the pace. But with the Pacific Northwest at risk of further radioactive contamination, there is no excuse for further delays.