Hanford Advisory Board deserves serious reply

June 13, 2012 

We've occasionally criticized the Hanford Advisory Board for failing to live up to its potential, but in recent days this inherently unwieldy body of sometimes competing interests has once again proved its worth.

When we've expressed disappointment, it's because we recognize the crucial role HAB members play in ensuring that Hanford cleanup is effective and safe.

We've sometimes wished the board would extend its reach to cleanup issues that weren't on its agenda, and other times we pushed for more timely recommendations.

The reason we've wanted more is simple. HAB's deliberations are meaningful. The process works, if not always perfectly.

Creating the board was one of the best ideas to come out of the Tri-Party Agreement involving the Department of Energy, state Department of Ecology and federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The 31 seats on the panel are reserved for a diverse group of stakeholders, ensuring that it can't be sidetracked by a small band of special interests.

HAB members represent seven Mid-Columbia governments, Tri-City business interests, union and nonunion Hanford workers, local and regional environmental interests, the public health community, Native American tribes, Oregon residents, regional universities and the public at-large.

We're sympathetic to the effort it takes for a group this large to reach consensus. We've seen much smaller and more compatible groups reach a stalemate over lunch plans.

And we acknowledge that Hanford cleanup issues are complex and technical. It takes time and dedication to gain the knowledge needed to make a meaningful contribution to the conversation.

The level of cooperation from DOE and its contractors has varied over the years, but recent reports and recommendations from HAB indicate that board members are getting the information they need to provide useful input.

State and federal agencies also provide oversight, and their expertise and advice are essential to the cleanup effort, but the public also needs to be at the table. After all, it's our money and our environment that's at stake.

Few of us have the time to learn enough about Hanford issues to provide practical advice. It's good for the region and the nation the we have HAB to act as our surrogates.

In recent days, members:

w Issued a letter questioning DOE's likely choice of an unproven technology to clean up uranium in Hanford ground water north of Richland.

Tests performed so far have not provided enough information to guarantee the technology will work on a large scale, HAB found.

"It is important to the Hanford Advisory Board that these first river corridor decision documents are dependable, protective, defensible and well supported," the letter stated.

w Sided with the state to push for all of Hanford's radioactive tank waste to be glassified before final disposal.

In April, DOE said it wants to look at alternate technologies for treating low-activity radioactive waste held in 169 underground tanks.

The board found that DOE's draft environmental study on tank wastes showed all the other methods under consideration would release unacceptable amounts of radioactive technetium 99 and other contaminants to the ground water.

w Issued a statement calling for improvements to the safety culture at the Hanford vitrification plant, which has been under fire from various external reviews.

We're impressed with HAB's position for two reasons.

First, it broke with protocol and made recommendations even though it couldn't reach a unanimous decision. West Richland's representative withheld approval. The issue is too important to allow the lack of unity to stop HAB from sharing its findings.

Second, HAB makes specific recommendations for improvement. It's easy to criticize, and much more difficult to provide solutions.

Recommendations include beefing up DOE's technical staff to provide more oversight, assembling an independent technical review team to review the plant's design, offer incentives to employees who raise safety concerns and conduct regular reviews of the safety culture at the project.

All of HAB's recommendations are available on the internet. A search for "Hanford Advisory Board" will get you to the site.

DOE's responses are also posted. The department hasn't had enough time to respond to the latest communications, but the answers will be worth noting.

HAB has produced a set of thoughtful and valuable recommendations.

It's DOE's responsibility to respond in kind.

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