Tri-City leaders have fought for years for a holistic approach to Hanford cleanup.
Now, after last week’s scare at the nuclear site, perhaps that message finally will get through.
We were caught off guard Tuesday morning when a tunnel used to enclose radioactive materials left over from the Cold War collapsed unexpectedly in central Hanford.
The news caused an alarm that spread throughout the country. But by noon, it was announced that no workers were injured, none were known to be contaminated and all were accounted for.
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Most importantly, no airborne radiation had been detected. Workers have since managed to contain the breached tunnel by filling it with a mixture of sand and soil.
But while the immediate panic is over, the anxiety lingers.
Although the nuclear reservation receives more than $2 billion annually, the focus in recent years has been on cleaning up the contaminated area near the Columbia River and addressing the toxic waste contained in aging underground tanks.
But there are other problem areas at Hanford — as the tunnel breach illustrates — with risks that should not be underestimated.
Environmental cleanup work at the PUREX plant, which is near where the collapsed tunnel is located, has been delayed because of a lack of money.
But it also has been delayed, in part, because some politicians decided to target their attention on other toxic issues at Hanford — like the waste tanks, for example.
The result is that cleanup projects in the spotlight end up getting funded at the expense of others, and that is not in the public’s best interest.
Just a few years ago, representatives from the Tri-City Development Council met with Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson to tell them the state’s emphasis on only certain Hanford issues was potentially shortchanging other urgent cleanup projects at the nuclear site.
TRIDEC’s position has been that Hanford needs to be seen through a wide-angle lens, not a microscope.
Potential risks across the entire Hanford nuclear reservation should be evaluated and ranked, and what funds there are should be allocated accordingly.
All this radioactive waste is left from past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.
At the PUREX plant, irradiated fuel was chemically processed to remove plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program. Used highly radioactive equipment from the plant was piled on railcars that were pushed into the tunnel and left.
Other toxic areas are of concern, too. Those include 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks in central Hanford, the majority of them single-shell tanks prone to leaking.
Add to that the radioactive waste stored in underwater tanks at the K West Basin near the Columbia River, strontium and cesium capsules in a basin that could be at risk in a severe earthquake, and a highly radioactive waste spill under the 324 Building near both Richland and the river.
It is all nasty, frightening stuff.
Every federal budget cycle, we wonder how much congressional funding will go toward Hanford cleanup.
Maybe this year we won’t have to beg quite so much.
The emergency — and reaction — caused by the collapsed tunnel should serve as a reminder to federal lawmakers that the radioactive waste at Hanford is real and it is dangerous.
And it is their obligation to get rid of it.