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Oct. 16, 2021

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In Our View: Mixed Signals on Hanford

Cuts in Trump’s proposed budget compel Pacific Northwest to point out dangers

The Columbian
Published:

The federal budget proposal released Monday by the Trump administration sends mixed signals about the biggest environmental issue facing Washington — cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

For decades, the Hanford site manufactured plutonium for use in atomic weapons. Operations there played a key role in creating the first nuclear bombs, in ending World War II, and in turning the United States into a global superpower. That significance is now recognized as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

While plutonium production at Hanford was shut down beginning in the 1960s, the site lingers as a threat to the Northwest. Many of the 177 underground tanks housing radioactive waste are known to be leaking; the federal government has been negligent in its court-mandated duty to clean up the site; and a series of mishaps endangering workers have been recorded. With Hanford sitting along the Columbia River about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver, inattention to the site imperils residents of two states.

Because of that, we are compelled to cry foul when the administration’s budget proposal calls for a $230 million cut to federal funding for Hanford in fiscal year 2019. With a total of $2.2 billion requested, the cuts are hardly draconian. But it is incumbent upon people in Washington and Oregon to remind leaders in Washington, D.C., of the risk posed by Hanford; if we don’t do it, nobody will. If the nation’s most contaminated radioactive site sat along the banks of the Potomac River, we’re pretty sure the issue would be viewed with more urgency.

Trump is not the first president to request budget cuts for cleanup efforts at Hanford. As Dan Newhouse, a Republican congressman whose district includes the Hanford site, said: “As I have done each and every budget cycle that has sought to reduce funding for Hanford, I will work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to restore funding for the Hanford cleanup.” In addition, the president’s proposal is merely a suggestion; Congress will determine the eventual budget.

While we encourage Washington’s congressional representatives to impress upon their colleagues the importance of funding the Hanford cleanup, Trump’s budget also has some good news related to the site. The request includes $120 million to restart the licensing process for establishing a national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

In 1987, Congress passed and Ronald Reagan signed a bill to turn that site into a home for radioactive waste. The project has languished ever since, but U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has expressed support for it. At Hanford, the idea is to build a vitrification plant that will convert waste into a more benign glass-like substance to be stored at Yucca Mountain.

Numerous studies over the decades — more than $15 billion has been spent on reports and development — have indicated that Yucca Mountain will provide the safest possible storage of the nation’s radioactive waste. Considering that more than 160 million Americans reside within 75 miles of a nuclear waste site, a repository in a remote part of Nevada is a preferable alternative.

Meanwhile, people in Washington face endless frustration with the situation at Hanford, concerns about worker health, and the threat of waste leaking into the Columbia River. Our elected officials should view the president’s budget proposal as an opportunity to raise the specter of Hanford yet again.

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