Open letter to Chu: Keep public in the loop

September 19, 2012 

Dear Secretary Steven Chu,

First, thank you for making the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant's problems a top priority. No environmental project in the nation is more important to public health and safety.

Your decision to assemble a panel of top-notch scientists and engineers to take a fresh look at technical questions plaguing this massive construction project is reassuring. It signals the Energy Department's commitment to the plant's success.

We wish the entire panel could have joined you for the discussions and briefings earlier this month at Hanford. But with such a high-powered panel, it isn't surprising that some members had other obligations.

It's impossible not to be impressed with the experts you've selected for the job: Langdon Holton of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Thomas Hunter, retired director of Sandia National Laboratories; David Kosson, Vanderbilt University professor of engineering; Milton Levenson, who has 60 years experience in nuclear energy; Arun Majumdar, the first director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy; Richard Meserve, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Per Peterson, chairman of the nuclear engineering department at the University of California Berkeley; and Monica Regalbuto of Argonne National Laboratory.

The panel's focus on the safe operations of the vitrification plant's black cells is spot on. You told Hanford workers in June that the possibility of a serious problem once the plant begins operating weighs heavily on your mind.

Millions of Americans who live in the Northwest share your concerns. Safely disposing of Hanford's tank wastes is essential to the region's future.

We don't have the panel's expertise, but we understand that moving Hanford's high-level radioactive liquids away from the Columbia River depends on the plant's success.

We know that if one of the 18 black cells were to fail, it could jeopardize the plant's ability to treat Hanford's most dangerous wastes.

It doesn't require an engineering degree to intuitively grasp the complexity inherent in designing processes that will take place inside inaccessible concrete cells for 40 years.

We've heard the concerns raised by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, DOE's Health, Safety and Security and others. When the experts are worried, so are we.

But we're also aware of past leaks in Hanford's single-shell tanks and the recent discovery of radioactive material between the inner and outer walls of a new double-shell tank, indicating a possible leak there.

It's just the latest reminder of what we already know -- Hanford's high-level tanks will eventually experience catastrophic failure if nothing is done to remove the wastes.

That inevitability ought to cause as many sleepless nights as concerns about the black cells.

We understand that it's impossible to design a plant that can operate with zero risk. We're counting on the experts to define a path forward that reduces the hazards to an acceptable level of risk.

On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a challenge to you during a TRIDEC luncheon. Before she leaves office Jan. 15, she believes you'll be able to deliver a plan for completing the vitrification plant.

A quick turn-around is crucial, and we're glad to see the governor is keeping the pressure on. Our fear is that the quest for perfect solutions will result in dangerous delays in completing the plant.

We don't doubt that you share our sense of urgency, but the additional emphasis provided by the governor can't hurt.

The entire Northwest is watching as if the region's future depends on it, because it does.

Take the steps necessary to do it right, but keep us in the loop, Mr. Secretary.

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