In Our View: Hanford Mess Gets Messier

Latest revelations underscore quagmire at U.S.’s most contaminated waste site

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Editor’s note: This editorial has been to corrected to accurately reflect this status of low-level radioactive waste cleanup at Hanford. 

While cleanup efforts — or the lack thereof — at Hanford Nuclear Reservation often defy explanation, we occasionally come across words that adequately summarize the situation. For example, The Columbian once wrote editorially, “Gov. Jay Inslee must sometimes feel as though he’s living in a Looney Tunes cartoon, where exasperated characters often exclaim, ‘Enough is too much!’ ” For another example, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is credited with being the first to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” — although he said it in French, so it sounded a little different.

Anyway, the point is that the situation at Hanford is a quagmire that has been marked by inattention from the federal government and incompetence from government overseers and private contractors. For decades, the nation’s most contaminated waste site has routinely generated stories about failures with few tales of progress to counter those stories.

Most recently comes news that the state Department of Ecology is investigating the dumping of potentially contaminated liquid into the ground. The Tri-City Herald reports that two empty, dumpster-like containers had been sitting outside, covered with tarps for a couple years. The contents — most likely rainwater — were dumped so the containers could be used to package radioactive waste.

Did we mention that Hanford, which for decades was the site of plutonium production for use in nuclear weapons, is the nation’s most contaminated waste site? Or that dozens of underground tanks containing radioactive waste are known to be leaking? Or that the site rests near the Columbia River, about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver?

Given those facts, the thought that dumpsters would sit unattended for years with workers unaware of what might be in them is mind-boggling. The thought that workers would then indiscriminately pour out those contents is inconceivable.

But when it comes to Hanford, no amount of incompetence is surprising. Indeed, enough is too much. Earlier this year, a portion of a wood-and-concrete tunnel housing radioactive waste collapsed, triggering emergency alerts throughout south-central Washington. The tunnel had housed eight rail cars containing waste since the 1960s — providing a metaphor for the situation at Hanford.

For decades, Washington officials have pressed the federal government about the need for urgency and competence. Neither have been forthcoming, despite a court-mandated 2023 deadline for the U.S. Department of Energy to start treating low-activity radioactive waste. The plan is to build a vitrification plant that will turn the waste into a benign glass-like substance. Meanwhile, the federal government has spent decades ignoring a law signed by President Ronald Reagan to create a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to Hanford.

This is an affront to the people of Central Washington and the millions who live downstream along the Columbia. Following the tunnel collapse this year, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators said, “The event was another harsh reminder of the radioactive and toxic hazards that remain at the Hanford Site.”

As more than one person has noted over the years, if a contaminated site were along the Potomac River, it likely would be given swift attention. The people of the Northwest deserve the same consideration.