There is, in the grasping-at-straws sense, some reason for hope that the federal government finally will pay attention to its duty at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
One glimmer arrived last week, when U.S. Department of Energy officials made an announcement regarding the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste that is stored at the facility. The announcement updated the proposed cost of a vitrification plant at Hanford to $16.8 billion, an increase from the previous estimate of $12.3 billion.
It is difficult to view this as good news, but we are trying to be Pollyannaish about it. The benefit is that the federal government is at least talking about Hanford, which rests along the Columbia River about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver. Energy Department officials said they have updated a contract with Bechtel National Inc. to provide incentives for expediting the work.
Hanford once was the focal point of the nation’s nuclear weapons production. The remaining radioactive waste is stored in 177 giant underground tanks, many of which leak, and many of which present the potential for an ecological disaster. The plan is to construct a vitrification plant that would turn the waste into a benign glass-like substance, but the project is decades behind its original schedule. President Obama’s proposed budget this year called for a $289 million cut in funding for the Hanford cleanup, demonstrating the administration’s level of concern for a project that affects one of the nation’s major waterways and the residents of two states.
Therefore, after numerous court orders and several lawsuits filed by the state, any attention provided by federal officials is most welcome. Yet the stronger reasons for hope are a new presidential administration and changes to the U.S. Senate. There is no telling how seriously the Trump administration will take the threat at Hanford, but there is little question that the departure of retiring Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is good news for Hanford watchers.
As Senate majority leader when Democrats were in charge, and later as Senate minority leader, Reid worked for years to block votes that could lead to the establishment of a national nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in his state. The Yucca Mountain project was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Reagan during the 1980s, but precious little progress has been made. This is a vital concern that extends well beyond Hanford; as Washington Post columnist George Will wrote in 2014, “More than 160 million Americans live within 75 miles of one or more of the 121 locations where 70,000 tons of waste are stored.”
Among those locations, Hanford is considered the nation’s most contaminated waste facility, placing it at the top of the to-do list when it comes to clean-up efforts. Yet it has been frustratingly difficult to draw the attention of Washington, D.C., to the issue. It is unfathomable to imagine the federal government ignoring the issue if Hanford were located, say, along the shores of the Potomac River, but Hanford has remained out of sight and out of mind.
Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington, along with Oregon’s Ron Wyden, have been outspoken in attempting to prompt federal action at Hanford, and their continued efforts will be essential. Meanwhile, Hanford provides an excellent opportunity for the Trump administration to demonstrate that it can tackle huge problems and work for the benefit of the public.
At least, that is the hope.