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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Hanford cleanup plan encouraging, depressing

The Columbian
Published: May 2, 2024, 6:03am

An agreement for the cleanup of radioactive waste at Hanford is encouraging. At the same time, it is a depressing reminder of the federal government’s dereliction in dealing with the nation’s most contaminated nuclear waste site.

Regardless of new euphemisms — the latest is being called a “holistic” plan — or seemingly new strategies, the danger posed by 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in Washington has remained largely unchanged for decades. Considering that the site sits near the Columbia River, about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver, urgency is in the best interest of Clark County residents.

On Tuesday, officials from the state and federal governments were trumpeting the new plan. Laura Watson, director of the state Department of Ecology, said the latest agreement provides “a durable framework that aligns our agencies and accelerates work while maintaining a robust and safe cleanup.” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who has worked diligently to promote Hanford cleanup, said: “This agreement on how to safely dispose of the 56 million gallons of tank waste at the Hanford site moves us in the right direction.”

But movement has been frustratingly slow.

What isn’t being mentioned is that this week’s agreement followed four years of mediated negotiations. Which followed a declaration from the U.S. Department of Energy that it would be unable to meet deadlines for cleanup. Which followed a 2010 consent decree issued by a federal court in the wake of a lawsuit over previously missed deadlines. Which followed a decision in the early 1990s that waste from Hanford would be turned into a glasslike substance at a proposed $4 billion vitrification plant.

Deadlines for the vitrification plant have frequently been unmet or pushed back. Meanwhile, some tanks of radioactive waste at Hanford have been known to be leaking. “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. That was in 2014.

The latest plan calls for starting treatment of the least-radioactive waste next year and the treatment of high-level radioactive waste in 2033. The legal target for glassifying all waste sets a 2052 deadline; the Department of Energy has moved those targets back to 2069.

At the same time, questions remain about where the federal government will store mitigated waste. A national repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was approved by Congress in the 1980s, but political wrangling has prevented the establishment of such a facility.

All of this grossly ignores the federal government’s duty to the state of Washington. The Hanford site was established as part of the Manhattan Project, which resulted in development of the first atomic bomb during World War II. For decades after, plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal was processed at the site. Washington did its part, and for generations it has been rewarded with nothing more than promises followed by inaction.

All of this leads to cynicism about the latest plan for cleanup at the nation’s most contaminated site.

Brian Vance, Hanford’s U.S. Department of Energy manager, said: “We have alignment on a plan that lays out a realistic and achievable path forward for Hanford’s tank waste mission.”

But as long as 56 million gallons of radioactive waste remain in our state, such words ring hollow.