In a lengthy, detailed examination of cleanup efforts at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the key passage is this: “Those leak-prone tanks are arguably the most radiologically contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere. At least 1 million gallons of radioactive liquids have leaked into the ground, seeping into the aquifer 200 feet below and then into the Columbia River, roughly 7 miles away.”
Crosscut, an independent news organization serving the Northwest, recently took a bird’s-eye look at the nation’s most contaminated waste site, where the federal government has spent decades of time and billions of dollars tepidly cleaning up the mess it left behind.
Hanford was built as a key portion of the Manhattan Project, which produced plutonium for the nuclear weapons that ended World War II. Workers then continued to refine plutonium throughout the Cold War, enabling the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Since the final reactor was decommissioned in 1987, the question has been what to do with the aftermath.
About 56 million gallons of radioactive waste sit in 177 underground tanks at the site near the Columbia River, about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver. For the past 25 years or so, the plan has been to mix the waste with benign melted glass and store it in glass logs — a process known as vitrification. But construction of a vitrification plant has been slow and deadlines routinely have been missed.
Earlier this year, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said: “The Columbia River, which Hanford adjoins, is our lifeblood. And here is the problem. We have spent billions and billions of dollars to try to turn the toxic waste into material that can be stored safely but not a single ounce of waste actually has been treated.”
The project has languished far too long. On June 28, 1988, the Hanford site was proposed for inclusion on the National Priorities List of pressing environmental concerns. That was during the Reagan presidency, and six presidential administrations have passed with little progress.
President Joe Biden and Northwest representatives of Congress must make Hanford a priority, impressing its importance upon other congressional members. One way to do that is to push for the establishment of a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
In 1987, Congress approved that area for the establishment of a repository — a move that should have broad support because at least 39 states have waste from the production of nuclear weapons. A secure central site for that waste, protected by thousands of ton of rock, is sensible. Lawmakers and the administration should approve funding for the Yucca Mountain site, an idea that has languished for decades.
While questions about the vitrification plant and the disposal of radioactive waste remain, two things are clear: Leaking waste near the Columbia River is a clear and present danger to the people, wildlife and environment of the Northwest; and the federal government must be diligent about cleaning up the mess it created.
As The Columbian has written editorially: “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.”
Delays and budget concerns are inevitable, but the existence of leaking tanks and the threat of more leaks should draw the attention of federal officials. The people of Washington deserve such attention for a decadeslong issue.