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May 8, 2021

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In Our View: Biden should make Hanford cleanup a priority

The Columbian
Published:

On June 28, 1988, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was proposed for inclusion on the National Priorities List of pressing environmental concerns. That was six presidential administrations ago, highlighting the federal government’s tepid approach to cleaning up what is regarded as the nation’s most contaminated waste site.

The Biden administration should make Hanford a priority, recognizing the growing danger presented by millions of gallons of toxic waste resting near the Columbia River. It also must recognize that partisan bickering will only slow a project that is crucial for the future of residents near Hanford and, indeed, for people downstream including those in Vancouver.

Alas, differing political philosophies inherently impact that approach to the Hanford cleanup. The quick explanation:

The Trump administration had issued a new definition of high-level radioactive waste at the site, a move it said would allow for much of the waste to remain at Hanford and expedite the project. At the same time, however, that administration frequently proposed sharp budget cuts for Hanford, disregarding the federal government’s responsibility for cleaning up the mess it made during the production of nuclear weapons.

State officials recently sent a letter to Jennifer Granholm, the new energy secretary, urging the Biden administration to reverse the interpretation of high-level waste. And that drew a rebuke from Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, who wrote that the Trump guidelines could “significantly reduce tank waste treatment costs, which would allow those savings to be reinvested in other important cleanup activities at Hanford.”

Newhouse has been a strong advocate for the cleanup at Hanford, which rests within his district, and he understands the issues. But we strongly urge officials to avoid taking any shortcuts in the reclamation project while dealing with 56 million gallons of waste. That waste is in underground tanks, many of which are known to be leaking – presenting a potential catastrophe for the nearby river that is the lifeblood of the region.

The federal government is spending about $2.5 billion annually on cleaning up the 580-square-mile site, and the 2019 Hanford Lifecycle report estimated that between $323 billion and $677 billion is needed to complete the job. In other words, progress is slow.

While the classification of high-level waste is important to cleanup efforts, the most essential action will be for the Biden administration to turn its attention to Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

In 1987, Congress approved that area for the establishment of a national nuclear repository. At least 39 states have waste from the production of nuclear weapons, and a secure central site protected by thousands of tons rock is sensible. Under the plan, a vitrification plant at Hanford would turn waste into a more benign glass-like substance for transfer to Yucca Mountain.

But the approved plan has languished for decades, becoming a political football in the process. President Trump proposed no funding to advance the project.

Congress and the Biden administration must take steps to finally deal in a responsible manner with the nation’s radioactive waste. Whether that means the Yucca Mountain site or a series of secure regional repositories, the issue must be handled by the federal government that created it.

Hanford’s cleanup has been an albatross for leaders from both parties and for Washington residents. Ideally, the seventh presidential administration to deal with it will finally make some real progress.

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