The following editorial originally appeared in The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)
The Trump administration is not original in eschewing its duty to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. For generations now, the federal government has placed Northwest residents at risk by taking a laissez-faire approach to cleaning up the nation’s most toxic radioactive site.
Because of the growing danger and the exponentially expanding cost of cleanup, the administration should increase the budget for Hanford, place added attention on the cleanup and move forward in establishing a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
The need is evident, even if the people of the Northwest often feel like we are baying at the moon trying to get the attention of the federal government. The Hanford site occupies 586 square miles — about half the size of Rhode Island — near the Columbia River 200 miles upstream from Vancouver. About 56 million gallons of radioactive waste is stored there in 177 underground tanks, some of which are leaking.
Those leaks could eventually reach the Columbia, infecting the water we drink and the fish we eat. They also could contaminate a large swath of land and render it radioactive for hundreds or thousands of years.
But the Trump administration has joined previous administrations in ignoring the crisis. The U.S. Department of Energy released a report in January raising the cost of Hanford’s cleanup to between $323 billion and $677 billion, with work lasting until somewhere between 2079 and 2102. The previous estimate suggested work could be finished by 2066 at a cost of $107 billion.
In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Energy Secretary Rick Perry called the new estimate “a pretty shocking number.” Yet President Trump’s proposed budget calls for a $416 million cut in funding for the Hanford cleanup.
Hanford was created as part of the Manhattan Project that created the first atomic bombs during World War II. It then was the site of plutonium processing as the United States developed its nuclear arsenal. As Sen. Patty Murray explains, “Hanford workers and the people of the Tri-Cities sacrificed to help America win World War II and the Cold War.” But that sacrifice has largely been ignored by Washington, D.C.
As far back as the Reagan administration, the federal government has been pursuing a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Waste is currently held at more than 120 locations throughout the country, and The Washington Post has reported that more than 160 million Americans live within 75 miles of a waste site. Yucca Mountain would accept that waste and store it more than 1,000 feet underground on 1,000 feet of rock.
The proposal would enhance the safety of millions of Americans, but it has repeatedly been undermined in Congress. For Hanford, the plan calls for construction of a vitrification plant that would turn the waste into a more benign glass-like substance before transportation to Yucca Mountain. Two years ago, Energy Secretary Perry said, “We have a moral obligation . to remove this from as many of these sites as we can and put it in the safest repository.”
That obligation still exists, and it is most profound at Hanford. President Trump should lead the way in triggering a sincere effort to clean up the site and protect Northwest residents, but skepticism remains. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, recently said: “Trump’s combination of bad math and shifty wordplay adds up to tragicomic incompetence.”
Unfortunately, there is nothing new about that when it comes to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.