If great challenges represent great potential, then the Hanford Site in Eastern Washington is overflowing with possibilities.
A recent visit from U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm reinforced the region’s potential, focusing on Washington’s leadership role in developing green energy. But it also served as a reminder of the challenges.
Hanford, which played a key role in the development and production of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, now is considered the nation’s most toxic waste site. Some 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste sits in tanks near the Columbia River. Many of the tanks are known to be leaking.
For decades covering multiple presidential administrations, the federal government has failed to fulfill its duty to clean up the site. In June, the Biden administration revised its Hanford budget request for 2023, adding $191 million for a total of $2.6 billion. That would match the current cleanup budget authorized by Congress, but those closest to the issue know that it still is inadequate.
Prior to Granholm’s visit, the governors of Washington and Oregon, along with several community groups, sent a letter to the federal government urging an extra $1 billion a year for the cleanup budget.
“The scope of Hanford cleanup is immense, representing one of the most complex and challenging environmental remediation efforts on the planet,” the letter said.
It added, “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.”
Meanwhile, a recent Government Accountability Office report to Congress looks at options for the Department of Energy to cut costs at Hanford. “Opportunities exist for Congress and DOE to take steps now that could potentially save tens of billions of dollars while reducing certain risks posed by the waste.”
Indeed, transparency and oversight are necessary to protect taxpayer dollars. But persistent delays have only increased the eventual costs while increasing the risk to residents and waterways in the Northwest.The accounting report notes that when design and construction of a vitrification plant at Hanford started in 2000, estimated costs were $4.3 billion; but $13 billion already has been spent, with no waste yet treated at the plant.
Further delays will only further increase costs. But Granholm’s visit and a focus on green energy provides a bit of hope. If Congress and the White House can envision economic potential in the region, it might provide an impetus for action.
According to the Tri-City Herald, Granholm noted the region’s leadership and skilled workforce, along with the presence of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in nearby Richland.
“If we want to get to our goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, we have to significantly expand the grid, and the great work that’s being done here at the lab will inform the decisions that we make,” Granholm said, adding that the region has an “irresistible mixture” for creating a clean-energy economy.
A visit from a Cabinet member is important not only for Eastern Washington, but for the entire Northwest. In addition to leaving radioactive waste in place, delayed cleanup efforts prevent potentially lucrative development.
The prospect of clean energy someday emanating from what now is the nation’s most toxic site is one of great potential. But first, great challenges must be met.