Hanford cleanup is a top budget priority

Turning the millions of gallons of radioactive waste into inert glass logs is a matter of public safety.

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The 56 million gallons of highly radioactive nuclear waste being stored in 177 underground containers at Hanford will eventually leak and reach the groundwater and the Columbia River. It will be a true disaster.

Yet, the federal government, which is responsible for the safe cleanup and long-term disposal of this toxic waste, has been dragging its feet on waste cleanup.

Sure, the government has dedicated billions of dollars to the project over the past few decades, but it has never offered enough funding at a quick enough pace to get the job done. Federal officials treat the task more like a cleanup of a family's garage than a nuclear waste facility -- they figure they will get around to it someday.

Real progress has been made the past few years as some serious money has been earmarked for the Hanford cleanup. Currently a vitrification plant is under construction -- price tag $12.2 billion -- that is expected to turn the radioactive waste into inert glass logs that can be safely buried.

Unfortunately, it appears federal officials are returning to their old ways with new excuses.

The current fiscal crisis combined with cost overruns is the root of the latest threat to progress.

The experts at Hanford have essentially determined the waste disposal will be more expensive than first projected -- about $900 million more.

While shortfalls of this magnitude should not be unexpected given the technology is essentially being developed on the fly, the current focus on reducing federal spending has taken away any wiggle room.

DOE has asked for $840 million for the vitrification plant in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, but the House has passed a budget that cuts that to $740 million.

It's going to be difficult for Congress to pour more money into this project when there is a proposal in the works to reduce long-term federal spending.

We agree federal spending has to be reduced over time so progress can be made in paying off the national debt, which is now over $14.6 trillion.

But it is imperative that the cleanup of Hanford move forward. The nuclear waste has got to be made safe before it kills people and creates a crisis that turns the Pacific Northwest upside down. How many billions will be spent then?

All of this would not be an issue today if Congress had taken this matter more seriously decades ago. Getting the vitrification plant on line is clearly a matter of public safety. It must be a priority of the federal government until the cleanup is complete.

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