In Our View: Get Hanford Back on Track

State must get tough with feds as costs, delays, health threats mount at cleanup

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As much as they probably would like to, federal officials can't blame this one on the partial government shutdown. No, the latest stumble in regards to the cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is simply another failure in a decades-long line of miscues regarding the nation's largest radioactive waste facility.

Last week, officials from the U.S. Department of Energy informed the office of Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson that the federal government is at "substantial risk" for missing three upcoming deadlines in the interminable process of cleaning up Hanford. The deadlines had been spelled out by the 2010 Hanford Cleanup Consent Decree, but the feds seem to be taking a stance of, "What's three more deadlines when you've already missed 11?"

At stake is progress on construction of a waste treatment plant, which originally was expected to cost $4.3 billion and now has a price tag of $12.3 billion — and growing. The plant will be used to treat 56 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge through a process known as vitrification, turning the waste into stable glass. With the latest delays, the 2022 completion date for the huge facility is in further jeopardy. In addition, it should be noted, the Energy Department's inspector general recently announced that Bechtel, builder of the treatment plant, had not been applying adequate quality assurance standards to critical portions of the facility.

"I am disappointed to learn that the federal government is now at serious risk of not meeting its legal deadlines on the critical cleanup milestones at Hanford," attorney general Ferguson said. "Our office will continue to work diligently to provide our state clients with every legal option."

Legal options — as in court action — might be the only way to grab the attention of the feds. For decades now, the Hanford cleanup has been overbudget and behind schedule, and continuing delays only increase the cost of the cleanup and the health risks for the entire Northwest.

Built during the 1940s to process plutonium for the Manhattan Project, the Hanford site remained in production through the end of the Cold War. Now it is regarded as the largest environmental cleanup project in the world, having cost some $40 billion already with eventual expenses expected to climb well over $100 billion.

That reality should only increase the sense of urgency. A year ago, leaks in several massive underground holding tanks were discovered, and earlier this year Gov. Jay Inslee stressed the need for more waste tanks to be constructed at the site. The concern is that leaking tanks will further contaminate the aquifer under the site and that radioactivity eventually will find its way into the Columbia River less than 10 miles away — and roughly 250 miles upstream from Vancouver. Because of that, delays created by the federal government require more contrition and more action than, "Oops, my bad."

As Ferguson said: "These aren't just informal deadlines. These are deadlines entered into with a federal court and the federal government has an obligation to meet those deadlines, and they continue to miss them."

The people of Washington — and the people of Oregon, who share the Columbia River — deserve better. Hanford is an area of vast concern that will require decades to clean up. But progress must continue to be made lest it turn into a large-scale disaster.