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Seattle Post Intelligencer: Hanford Site Still in Distressing State

December 11, 2007
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By GAP Nuclear Oversight Director Tom Carpenter.

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Energy, along with the EPA and Washington state, hosted the annual "State of the Site" meeting on Hanford, in Seattle.

To those of us who are frequent attendees at such events, this one bore a depressing similarity to many of the past meetings called for a similar purpose -- to review the state of the Hanford nuclear site's efforts to clean up the largest and most expensive toxic mess in the United States.

Hanford opened in 1942 to produce, on an industrial scale, the plutonium used in the first nuclear explosion in the Nevada desert in 1945 -- followed shortly by the use of the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.

More than 40 years later, Hanford had opened and closed nine nuclear production reactors, five plutonium reprocessing facilities and numerous laboratory and support facilities, all in support of the Cold War mission to create America's nuclear arsenal.

By 1990, production had ended at Hanford, and the task of addressing the legacy of contamination began in earnest. Hanford was acknowledged to be the most contaminated facility in the Western Hemisphere, raising nagging questions about the country's willingness, and even ability, to clean up the staggering quantities of highly dangerous nuclear and chemical detritus.

Much has changed at Hanford since 1990, yet in most ways it looks pretty much the same. We still do not have a viable treatment facility for vitrifying (putting into glass) the tens of millions of gallons of high-level nuclear waste now stored in leaking underground waste tanks. Hanford is on its fourth attempt to design and construct such a facility, which recently suffered a major setback with the announcement that the cost of the plant would more than double (to more than $12 billion) and the start-up date pushed back to 2019. Contractors continue to be rewarded, despite safety lapses and avoidable schedule slippages, and the merry-go-round of bureaucrats and their flavor-of-the-day gimmicks for cleanup ("Accelerated Cleanup!" "Done in a Decade!") continue to be churned out by spinmeisters in Washington, D.C.

Another thing that has not changed is the government's relentless efforts to designate Hanford as the national storage dump for commercial and defense-related radioactive waste. At the State of Site meeting, none of the officials who stood up to praise and to criticize Hanford even mentioned the three current proposals that would result in thousands of truckloads of radioactive and chemical trash being sent to Hanford. The job of pointing out this fact fell on the public interest representatives at the meeting.

In 2004, the voters of Washington overwhelmingly approved Initiative 297, an initiative that would ban the import and disposal of offsite waste at Hanford until the site was compliant with existing environmental laws. The remarkable 70 percent approval rating was in stark contrast to some of the close races that year, including that of the governor, who won by a scant 133votes. Ironically, it is now that same governor to whom the voters are looking for support in enforcing the will of the people, and she is not disappointing us. Her office is supporting legislative efforts to enact the salient parts of the initiative, and the state is strongly defending against the predictable federal assault on the initiative in court.

We are extremely fortunate to have a governor who understands Hanford better than any other politician and, though laudably in favor of collaborative decision-making, she is not afraid of using the tools of office to defend the state. Yet despite her best efforts, this coming year the federal government may prevail and start shipping highly dangerous wastes from around the nation to a site badly in need of a new strategy just to take care of its existing mess.

The future of Hanford cleanup -- and the protection of human health and safety for millions of people over thousands of years -- hangs in the balance. Citizen action is needed to tip that balance. Let's start with making sure that Hanford does not make its problems worse by accepting new shipments of toxic waste for disposal.

 
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