State right to force federal Hanford cleanup

The federal government created the waste; it must clean it up.

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Washington state — led by Gov. Chris Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna — is wisely threatening legal action against the federal government because it continues to shirk its responsibilities to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Federal officials have been delaying fully funding the cleanup operation for years. Congress trims current funding while promising to make up for it some day — a day that never arrives.

This is a concern for all of Washington state, but we in Southeastern Washington — an hour or so drive from the nuclear reservation — have a lot at stake. If the nuclear waste leaches into the Columbia River it would cause a disaster.

The Associated Press reports the biggest concern right now is the construction of a huge waste treatment plant to convert highly radioactive waste into a glass that can then be buried. The $12.3 billion project has encountered numerous technical problems and delays in the past decade and costs for the project have skyrocketed.

U.S. Department of Energy officials said the agency might not be able to meet the 2022 operating deadline established by court orders. Those orders were a result of Washington’s lawsuit over missed deadlines.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, Gregoire and McKenna gave the DOE until Sept. 26 to respond to their questions about the delays or face returning to court.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the project to build the atomic bombs that led to the end of World War II. Hanford is now the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.

These legal threats are necessary. Action has to be taken to remind federal officials cleaning up 53 million gallons of radioactive nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation must be a top priority.

That waste, which is stored in 177 steel tanks (142 designed with only a single wall and 67 of which have confirmed leaks) is buried near the Columbia River. Time is not an ally.

Two decades ago an agreement was reached by the state and federal government that called for the waste to be cleaned up. It’s been updated over the years and the new target date is 2035.

The plan is for the waste to be converted to inert glass logs that would then be safely buried. Generally considered the linchpin of Hanford cleanup, the glass-log — or vitrificatition — plant is at least eight years behind schedule.

The U.S. government made a deal with Washington state to clean up the nuclear waste at Hanford. It has an obligation to do so as quickly as possible so that an environmental disaster is averted.

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