Sunday, September 27, 2020
Sept. 27, 2020

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In Our View: Shortcut on nuke waste cleanup shortsighted

The Columbian

The federal government’s approach to cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in south-central Washington amounts to nothing less than a dereliction of duty. For decades, leaders in Washington, D.C., have ignored their moral and legal obligation to protect the people of our state and the nearby Columbia River.

The latest thumb in the eye to Washington residents is a decision to reclassify some of the radioactive waste stored at Hanford, which is considered the most contaminated facility in the United States. About 56 million gallons of waste sit in 177 underground tanks, many of which are known to be leaking.

Now, the U.S. Department of Energy has announced that it is labeling some “high-level” waste as “low-level.” Changing the designation does not render the waste any more benign, but it makes it easier and less expensive for the federal government to move it to low-level disposal facilities in Utah or Texas.

Washington residents are not looking for an easy solution that dumps the problem in somebody else’s backyard. We are expecting the federal government to adhere to court decisions and agreements that have called for the waste to be properly handled and for Hanford to be effectively cleaned up.

In response to the latest announcement, Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a joint statement, “Washington will not be sidelined in our efforts to clean up Hanford and protect the Columbia River and the health and safety of our state and our people.”

Those people and the work that was done at Hanford helped develop the first atomic weapons, which proved decisive in World War II. They then helped build the United States’ nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. Now, the remnants of that work amount to about 60 percent of the nation’s most dangerous radioactive waste.

Inslee and Ferguson said: “The Trump administration is showing disdain and disregard for state authority with these actions. . . . The administration seeks to cut out state input and move towards disposal options of their choosing, including those already deemed to be unsafe by their own assessments and in violation of the existing legally binding agreement.”

The Trump administration is not the first to eschew its duty to the people of Washington by undermining the Hanford cleanup. But the latest decision is particularly irresponsible.

During the Reagan administration, Congress approved the establishment of a national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But plans have languished. Construction of a vitrification plant at Hanford to turn the waste into a more benign, glass-like substance has been slow, and Congress repeatedly has declined to move forward on the Yucca Mountain proposal.

A firm, long-range plan for dealing with the nation’s 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste is necessary; continually leaving regulations to the whim of whichever administration is in charge is doomed to failure.

For Washington, that failure can be found in the leaking tanks at Hanford and the continued presence of radioactive waste near the Columbia River. Hanford sits along the Columbia about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver, and contamination of the river would be an environmental and economic disaster for residents of two states.

Seeking shortcuts by changing the designation of waste does little to mitigate those dangers or provide assurance that the federal government is living up to its duty.