In Our View: Feds, Clean Up Hanford Act

Last week’s accident at nuclear site illustrates U.S. government’s negligence

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Last week’s emergency at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation should serve as a reminder that the federal government must pay more attention to the nation’s most contaminated cleanup site.

Part of a wood-and-concrete tunnel housing radioactive waste collapsed, leading to emergency alerts being sent throughout south-central Washington and to nonessential workers being told to stay home. In the end, officials say, no radiation was sent airborne, and no workers were injured or contaminated. It is a sad commentary that the dangers at Hanford are such that last week’s results can be viewed as a best-case scenario.

But consider the underlying facts of the emergency: The tunnel in question had stored eight rail cars filled with contaminated material since the 1960s, and a similar tunnel contains 28 rail cars filled with waste. The fact that a 50-year-old system is being used to store hazardous waste is disturbing. Elsewhere on the 580-square-mile nuclear reservation can be found 177 tanks containing a total of 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge — and 67 of those tanks are known to be leaking. With Hanford resting close to the Columbia River, leaking tanks would seem to be a recipe for an environmental disaster.

Hanford was established during the 1940s as a key part of the nation’s nuclear weapons program. The site was used to develop plutonium for weapons through the end of the Cold War while also producing the inevitable radioactive waste. Workers at Hanford served their country admirably, which makes the federal government’s inattention to the cleanup particularly frustrating.

In 1989, state and federal officials reached agreement on a timeline for Hanford cleanup, but deadlines have routinely been missed as the project inches along. In recent years, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has sued the federal government regarding both the cleanup and dangerous conditions for workers at Hanford, and plans for a vitrification facility that would turn waste into a benign glasslike substance are years behind schedule. Compounding the issue is that a national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada — originally approved by Congress in the 1980s — faced years of roadblocks from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. The state Department of Ecology has determined that cleanup work is about 25 years behind schedule.

The fear is that the next accident at Hanford will not be as harmless as the one last week. The facility is located about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver, giving local residents reason for pause should radioactive waste contaminate the Columbia River. It also rests in the shadow of the Tri-Cities — Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco — and is about 200 miles from Seattle, meaning that airborne radioactivity could be disastrous.

The partial tunnel collapse led to an alert being sent out to residents of the area warning that an emergency had been declared at Hanford. Given the fact that officials have been negligent in shoring up safety at the site or mitigating the dangers, this understandably was disconcerting to the locals. Unfortunately, it probably is only a matter of time before a mishap at Hanford results in an incident that proves more costly than the ongoing cleanup.

Because of that, it is past time for the federal government to perform due diligence in cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The people of Washington deserve better treatment than they have received from a series of presidential administrations.