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Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Oct. 3, 2023

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Both sides of Washington tell Biden what it will really take to clean up Hanford nuclear site


Disparate interests in the Northwest have found something they can agree on — the need for a sustained spending boost of more than $1 billion a year on cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

Tuesday a letter was sent to President Biden asking that the administration’s next annual budget request bump the Hanford site’s budget to nearly $3.8 billion and continue that increased funding from fiscal 2024 for years to come.

In June, the Biden administration took the unusual step of revising its Hanford budget request for fiscal 2023 from its initial request by about $191 million to just over $2.6 billion.

The current Hanford budget as authorized by Congress is a record high $2.6 billion, not including spending for some expenses such as security.

But that’s not enough as the Hanford site in Eastern Washington enters its next phase of cleanup, said the letter sent Tuesday, just ahead of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s first visit to the site on Friday.

Continuing funding at the present level will exponentially balloon the overall cost of Hanford cleanup, delay work by decades and increase the risk of a catastrophic infrastructure failure or release of contamination, those signing the letter agree.

It was signed by the governors of both Washington and Oregon.

Hanford Communities, a coalition of local governments near Hanford, and the Tri-City Development Council signed on.

It also was signed by Seattle-based Hanford Challenge and Portland-based Columbia Riverkeeper, even though Tri-Cities and west side groups disagree on the details of how environmental cleanup of the site should be done.

Washington state and Tri-Cities Hispanic organizations and key Hanford labor unions also signed the letter.

A separate letter was sent by the Yakama Nation, which has treaty rights at Hanford.

Hanford cleanup ‘immense’

“The scope of Hanford cleanup is immense, representing one of the most complex and challenging environmental remediation efforts on the planet,” the letter signed by the governors and others said.

The site, now covering 580 square miles, was used during World War II and the Cold War to produce nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, leaving parts of Hanford massively contaminated.

Progress has been made on environmental cleanup over the past 33 years, including cleanup of 1,300 waste sites, demolition of 900 facilities and treatment of 27 billion gallons of groundwater.

But hundreds of facilities and waste sites still need to be cleaned up, billions of gallons of groundwater still needs to be decontaminated, and temporarily buried and stored waste tainted with plutonium needs to be packaged and shipped to a national disposal facility in New Mexico.

Most daunting are the 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste now stored in underground tanks, many of them prone to leaking.

Hanford’s biggest challenge

“Importantly, this large volume of tank waste presents one of the most significant long-term risks at Hanford, and tank waste treatment is the largest cost driver for the entire cleanup effort,” the letter said.

The Department of Energy estimates that $300 billion to $640 billion will be needed to complete the remainder of Hanford environmental cleanup by 2078.

It would require annual budgets of $5.4 billion at the low end of the estimate to $11 billion at the high end, according to DOE’s 2022 Hanford LIfecycle Scope, Schedule and Cost Report.

The report projects the need for a significant budget increase starting in fiscal 2024 to ramp up construction and other work to prepare for the treatment of high level radioactive tank waste at Hanford as other cleanup is done, including the start of low level radioactive waste treatment begins.

“It is imperative that your FY24 budget request includes the necessary resources for this critical phase of Hanford cleanup, and for Congress to ensure that this funding is provided,” the letter to Biden said.

“Doing otherwise will only increase long-term costs for the American people while increasing the risk to human health and the environment,” the letter said.

The full list of signers includes Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Washington state Department of Ecology, Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, Tri-Cities Development Council, Tri-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Hanford Communities, Hanford Challenge, Columbia Riverkeeper, Central Washington Building Trades Council and the UA Local Union 598 Plumbers and Steamfitters.