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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Feds, Clean up Hanford Mess

Federal government must stop shirking its responsibilities at nuclear reservation

The Columbian
Published: December 14, 2018, 6:03am

Most of us learn to clean up after ourselves at an early age. But when it comes to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the federal government is stuck in a lazy, petulant phase like the most troublesome of teenagers.

We have mentioned this editorially in the past. But with new developments further demonstrating irresponsibility on the part of the U.S. Department of Energy, it needs to be mentioned again. As any parent or guardian knows, sometimes you have to repeat yourself before the message gets through.

And so we remind the feds that they created a mess at Hanford, the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, and they have a moral and legal duty to clean it up. Instead, the government is compounding its dereliction with plans to close the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Program near Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Workers there are wrapping up the processing of 85,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste at an 890-square-mile site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory. The Associated Press reports that the plant handles transuranic waste that takes much longer to decay than other radioactive waste. The plant compacts the waste, which makes it easier to transport and store at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Rather than repurpose the plant to receive radioactive waste from Hanford, which rests along the Columbia River about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver, officials have determined that such a move would not make financial sense. “It does not appear to be cost effective due to packaging and transportation challenges in shipping waste,” reads a Department of Energy analysis written in August and released this month.

That might be true, but the problem is that the government has not presented a viable alternative for dealing with pressing concerns at Hanford.

Hanford was commissioned in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project that resulted in the first atomic bombs, and for decades it played a role in producing the United States’ nuclear arsenal. The Department of Energy’s final reactor was decommissioned in 1987, and since then the feds have largely ignored their duty to clean up the site. In 1989, the state of Washington and two federal agencies entered a tri-party agreement setting deadlines for cleanup, but those deadlines have not been worth the paper they were written on.

Instead, 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste are sitting in tanks on the site, and many of the tanks are known to be leaking. Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy has proposed reclassifying some of the waste from high-level to low-level, which would allow the waste to remain at Hanford.

In the long run, a vitrification plant that turns the waste into a more benign glasslike substance must be completed, and a national nuclear depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada must be established. Both steps have been agreed to in the past and then largely ignored, leaving residents along the Columbia in danger of a contaminated river.

In the short run, the Idaho plant should accept some of the Hanford waste. Reportedly, Washington’s radioactive site has about 8,000 cubic yards of waste — the equivalent of more than 650 dump-truck loads — that could be processed at the Idaho facility.

Given the risk posed by the waste at Hanford, Washington residents should remain aware of what is happening — or not happening — there. And they should be diligent about telling the United States government to clean up after itself.