For too long, the federal government has kept cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation toward the bottom of its to-do list. “It’s a nice idea,” a long string of presidential administrations have seemed to say. “We’ll get to it eventually.”
With such nonchalance being the prevailing attitude for decades, the fact that President Joe Biden’s proposed 2024 federal budget includes record funding for Hanford is encouraging. But it is far from cause for celebration.
Congress must join the administration in recognizing the importance of the site and approving the president’s request for some $3 billion for Hanford. The issue is not only a matter of cleaning up hazardous, radioactive waste in Washington; it is about the federal government fulfilling its moral and court-ordered duty.
“There’s more work to do, but this is a big step in the right direction to getting this cleanup done efficiently, effectively and safely,” Gov. Jay Inslee wrote on Twitter this week.
Beggars, as they say, can’t be choosers, which puts Washington leaders in a difficult spot. While the proposal for increased funding is a step in the right direction, it does not mitigate years of inattention by the federal government. Nor does it fully fund cleanup at what is considered the nation’s most contaminated radioactive site.
Hanford, once the hub of plutonium production for the United States’ arsenal of nuclear weapons, now is home to underground tanks holding 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Many of those tanks are known to be leaking, and with the site’s proximity to the Columbia River — 200 miles upstream from Vancouver — federal officials should have brought urgency to the project long ago.
“The citizens living along banks of the Columbia River deserve to know the full story of what is happening with the Hanford tanks,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., once wrote to Department of Energy officials, who oversee Hanford cleanup.
That was in 2014. Citizens still are waiting for significant progress.
According to the Tri-City Herald, Biden’s proposed budget would increase spending on a vitrification plant at Hanford from its current $875 million to $1 billion; that plant is being prepared to treat radioactive waste for disposal. The budget also would add an extra $34 million for work at the tank farms.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, whose district includes the Hanford site, long has worked to draw attention to the cleanup. So have Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. As Congress considers the details of Biden’s budget proposal, Washington lawmakers — including Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania — should impress upon their colleagues the importance of Hanford.
Every state and every congressional district has its own needs, but a site largely unknown to the rest of the country warrants special attention. As journalist Joshua Frank wrote last year in the book “Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America,” Hanford represents “the costliest environmental remediation project the world has ever seen and, arguably, the most contaminated place on the entire planet.”
With Murray serving as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee — and with Newhouse sitting on the House Appropriations Committee — there is hope that Hanford funding will remain unscathed when Congress takes a scalpel to Biden’s proposed budget. But as Washington residents learned long ago, it is difficult to draw federal attention to a remote site in our state.