The federal stimulus package won't be all about highway bridges, state budgets, or even the National Endowment for the Arts. A bit of that money will go to Hanford and other nuclear waste sites to clean up radioactive garbage that has been accumulating since World War II. Will stimulus spending finally make the federal government get serious about taking out the nuclear garbage at Hanford? Don't hold your breath.
The House stimulus bill includes a meager $500 million for nuclear cleanup. Before it passed, a bipartisan group of Senators from nuclear waste states wrote to the chair and ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, urging them to pony up $6 billion for cleanup. Sen. Maria Cantwell signed the letter and Sen. Patty Murray, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, also supported the idea. The Senate's version of a stimulus bill currently includes $6.4 billion for nuclear cleanup. that's a big jump from the token House amount, but still far short of what's needed.
Whatever passes, Hanford, the hemisphere’s most contaminated nuclear site, will get a substantial piece of the small pie. But the amount needed is massive, as an excursion into Hanford history will show.
The idea of using stimulus money at Hanford evokes a Depression-era image: a long line of men in bib overalls and cloth caps out in the desert using wood-handled shovels to dig trenches into which the accumulated waste can be dumped. That’s not what anybody has in mind, of course. Actually, the government has already tried the trenches-in-the-desert approach at Hanford — low-level waste was originally dumped into unlined trenches there — and also the cheap-single-shelled-steel-tanks-in-the-desert approach for longer-lived and more dangerous waste.
During World War II and the early years of the Cold War, when Hanford produced plutonium for the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs, plus the bombs that the Strategic Air Command kept ready to drop on the Soviet Union from the Berlin Airlift through the Cuban Missile Crisis, long-lived wastes were stored in 149 of those cheesy single-walled tanks, none of which had a planned life expectancy of more than 25 years, and later in 28 double-shelled ones.
Inevitably, these tanks have leaked. An estimated million gallons of liquid waste have contaminated soil and headed toward groundwater. As tanks continue to deteriorate, odds are that the volume will grow, and that contaminated groundwater will eventually make its way to the Columbia River.
Twenty years ago, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state Department of Ecology — headed at the time by Chris Gregoire — signed a Tri-Party Agreement that established benchmarks for progress and affirmed the state’s power to enforce two federal statutes, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). (The agreement was signed officially on May 15, 1989, but the parties actually agreed four months earlier, during the transition from the administration of Ronald Reagan to that of George W. Bush) Both govern the treatment and storage of non-radioactive hazardous wastes and mixed hazardous and nuclear waste. Congress has long-since preempted the regulation of unadulterated nuclear waste. The waste in all those old leaky tanks is thoroughly mixed.
Under the terms of the amended agreement, the feds are supposed to build a vitrification plant that will encase radioactive wastes in glass. Originally, they were to start vitrifying waste in 1999. The official starting date has been pushed back three times, to 2004, then to 2008, and finally to 2011. All the waste is supposed to be treated by 2027.
It’s not gonna happen. No one even pretends the vitrification plant will be up and running by 2011 or that all the waste will be treated by 2027. The current projected starting date is 2019. Some people think the plant will never work. Even optimists say the last high-level waste won’t be treated for another 40 years. The Department of Energy has fallen hopelessly behind schedule.
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