In Focus: With leaks at Hanford, now is not the time for distractions

March 3, 2013 

Reports that radioactive wastes are once again leaking out of tanks at the Hanford site are a stark reminder that, while much progress has been made in cleaning up our Cold War legacy, the cleanup job is far from done. As a former Hanford site worker, I know the complexity of the Hanford cleanup challenge. And as an elected representative of the people of the Tri-Cities, I know the critical importance of getting the job done soon and getting it done right. Completing the construction of the Waste Treatment Plant at Hanford and beginning treatment of the tank wastes as soon as possible are an essential part of the Hanford cleanup. Some of the Hanford tanks are nearly 70 years old and for the past several decades we have been debating the approach for dealing with these wastes. The time for debate is over. Vitrification — the treatment process to be used at the Waste Treatment Plant — is being successfully used to immobilize liquid radioactive wastes in the United States and in other countries. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has assembled experts from around the country who are solving the handful of remaining technical questions about the most difficult waste to be treated at the plant. However, the plant already will be capable of treating more than 75 percent of the tank waste. And Chu’s teams also are developing plans that could allow waste treatment to begin years earlier than the current schedule. Of course, none of this will be possible if construction of the Waste Treatment Plant is slowed because of budget cuts or in response to ill-informed calls for a new approach. In recent weeks, we’ve seen Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden from Oregon express very real concerns about the integrity of the tanks holding millions of gallons of radioactive waste at Hanford. While I applaud Inslee and Wyden for their commitment to our community and our region, I want to be sure they understand that now is not the time to change course. Now is the time to focus our collective attention on keeping the Waste Treatment Plant construction moving forward so we can get the waste out of the tanks and into a safe form for storage and disposal. In these uncertain budgetary times, it is more important than ever to make sure the current team at Hanford has the resources it needs to complete the Waste Treatment Plant as soon as possible. The sooner we address the risk, mitigate it and store the waste properly, the better we can protect our resources and the safety of our community. The bottom line is that the longer the waste remains in the tanks, even new tanks, the greater the risk to the environment and the people of the Northwest. The communities closest to Hanford know we must eliminate the risk in the safest manner and at the earliest possible date. The Waste Treatment Plant is the safest proven technology. We cannot be distracted by the naysayers. We must remain committed to that mission and I look forward to the continued support of our state and federal elected officials. Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, has over 37 years of experience in the nuclear industry and is a former licensed senior reactor operator.

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