hanford

This hasn’t exactly been the most glowing (sorry, poor choice of words) of news cycles for people concerned about safety at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. In the span of a few days, the federal government — the U.S. Department of Energy, to be exact — made headlines by:

• Filing suit challenging a Washington state law making it easier for sickened Hanford workers to access compensation benefits — potentially perpetuating public health risks. (Go to http://bit.ly/2CeE2Ux to read our editorial.)

• Deciding to restrict the access of an independent safety board, which the federal government had agreed to form, to information about progress at the Hanford cleanup — potentially putting public health at risk.

• Seeking to reclassify high-level radioactive waste to “lower its threat level,” which would save the Energy department billions of dollars and countless logistical headaches by simply leaving considerable toxic material in the ground — potentially putting public health at risk.

Notice the pattern? The federal government, which has dragged its feet for decades in cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, now seems to be trying to dispose of the hassle of cleanup through rewriting rules rather than continuing the open and prudent process of cleaning up all the hazardous waste from decades of building nuclear weapons.

Yes, we know the price tag of the Hanford cleanup is steep — close to $2 billion a year. Likely, there are inefficiencies and wastefulness in Hanford’s operating budget, but its mandate to clean up the mess is the price the government must pay for its nuclear weapons policies. Perhaps because the reservation is an hour or so south of us in the Tri-Cities, we tend to forget the almost unfathomable amount of waste wallowing underground – 8,000 cubic yards, including 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemicals waiting to be treated for permanent disposal while currently stewing in 177 atrophying underground tanks.

The federal government should be hastening the removal, not looking for ways to save a buck by, decades after the fact, attempting to change rules on what constitutes high and low levels of toxicity. Sure, the move will save the government $40 billion dollars under this proposal, but, in return, parts of Hanford would indefinitely remain a dumping ground for toxic sludge.

Environmental groups, such as Hanford Challenge, have balked at the DOE’s proposal, saying the government would recklessly expedite the cleanup of Hanford the cheapest way possible. Essentially, they worry that what for decades has been called high-level radioactive waste would be deemed not-so-bad, after all, and left to languish.

As Tom Carpenter, Hanford Challenge’s executive director, recently told reporters, “The Tri-Cities should be very, very worried. (There is) not much point of doing much else if they don’t clean up the high-level waste.”

The entire state, not just the Tri-Cities, should be fretting, given that the state has a legal commitment with the DOE to oversee cleanup. Alex Smith, nuclear waste program manager for the state’s Department of Ecology, told the Tri-City Herald that the agency wants to be consulted before any policy change is made to “maintain long-term protection of human health … and protect the Columbia River from risks associated with the waste stored in Hanford’s tanks.”

Washington senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, in a joint statement, pledged to work to make the DOE live up to its responsibilities. Both lawmakers, as well as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), have encouraged the federal government to hold public hearings — in addition to a public comment period that will be starting soon.

Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside) acknowledged in a statement that the government “is legally and morally responsible” for cleaning up Hanford. Newhouse, however, believes the federal government is right to study reclassification, noting that, currently, levels of waste are determined by the method the waste was produced, not necessarily its radioactivity level. “The purpose of this science-based reclassification proposal is to focus on the actual radioactive content of the waste,” Newhouse said. “Properly classifying nuclear waste will safely expedite removal of nuclear waste from Washington state and save taxpayer dollars.”

Wyden, however, has cautioned about “lowering the bar for level of protection for future generations” in exchange for saving money on cleanup.

In a perfect world, in which plutonium and other radioactive materials did not have a half-life of, oh, forever, there might not be a sense of urgency to dispose of every gallon of toxic waste. But we live in the nuclear age, and situations such as Hanford’s are part of the fallout. Saving money is a good thing, but not at the expense of a continued poisoned environment.

• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.