In Our View: Coming Clean on Hanford

Lawmakers right to demand full story, effective cleanup of nuclear site

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When it comes to concerns about the Hanford nuclear waste complex in southeastern Washington — concerns that have been festering for 30 years or so — Sen. Ron Wyden has effectively distilled the issue."

The citizens living along the banks of the Columbia River deserve to know the full story of what is happening with the Hanford tanks," the Democratic senator from Oregon wrote last week in a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. The ranks of those citizens would include many in Clark County, as no city larger than Vancouver has its downtown core along the Great River of the West. So, when there are issues at Hanford, those issues are of vast importance to those who reside downriver from the nation's largest and most contaminated nuclear site.

Hanford, which was constructed by the federal government during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, contains about 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste from the production of plutonium. That waste is stored in 177 underground tanks, including many single-walled units that date to the 1940s and have leaked. Now, there are concerns over 28 newer, double-walled tanks, one of which was found to be leaking in 2012 and several others of which are threatening to leak.

"It is time for the Department (of Energy) to stop hiding the ball and pretending that the situation at Hanford is being effectively managed," Wyden wrote to Moniz.

There's no pretending on that account. For decades now, the federal government's efforts to clean up Hanford have been beset by incompetence and delays. A $13 billion facility — originally budgeted at $4.3 billion — is being built for the treatment of waste on the site, but it has been plagued by design problems that have stalled construction. Along the way, the federal government routinely has missed deadlines outlined in the 2010 Hanford Cleanup Consent Decree, leading Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson to say last fall: "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. Our office will continue to work diligently to provide our state clients with every legal option."

Legal action might be the only avenue for getting the attention of federal authorities, who for too long have dragged their feet at Hanford. Cleanup efforts already cost taxpayers about $2 billion a year, and any leakage will only drive up the ultimate cost in addition to heightening potential health hazards.

In the meantime, another potential setback for the Hanford cleanup will be the retirement of Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., after 10 terms in Congress. As the Tri-City Herald wrote: "He has worked to ensure government bureaucrats understand the expectations of the people of the Tri-City area, sending a steady stream of needling letters to officials in Washington, D.C. ... And he has taken the lead to educate other members of Congress about Hanford's environmental cleanup needs and the nation's obligation to get the work done." Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also has been beating the drum for the Hanford cleanup, and much continued diligence will be required to generate some movement on the project.

The federal government created a mess that was decades in the making at Hanford, and now it has an obligation to clean it up. Tanks are leaking or are threatening to leak, and little progress is being made. As Sen. Wyden said, it's time residents knew the full story about Hanford.