Is the Department of Energy trying to smother Hanford critique?

New rules imposed by the Department of Energy would limit the terms of Hanford Advisory Board members, but members say they're just trying to keep outspoken advocates of more stringent nuclear clean-up practices quiet.
A sign warns visitors of restrictions at Hanford's Energy Department site.

A sign warns visitors of restrictions at Hanford's Energy Department site. Tony Case/Flickr

Part of the Hanford site where a glassification, or vitrification, plant is being constructed

Part of the Hanford site where a glassification, or vitrification, plant is being constructed U.S. Department of Energy

For almost two decades, the Hanford nuclear reservation has had very active public participation and oversight through the Hanford Advisory Board.

At times, it has been a powerful critic of the U.S. Department of Energy's clean-up of Hanford — arguably the most radioactive and chemically contaminated spot in the Western Hemisphere. And at times, the DOE has been irked by a critical public board that tends to go its own way.

The bottom line is that the DOE — especially its Washington, D.C. headquarters  — sometimes has a strained relationship with the Hanford Advisory Board. And earlier this month, it proposed some changes to the structure of the board — including limiting board members to three two-year terms — that have spooked its members.

But why should anyone — especially a Puget Sound resident — even care?

Almost unknown outside of the nation's nuclear clean-up circles, the Hanford Advisory Board is one of the Northwest's greatest political forces for keeping the site's cleanup on track. Conceived by the DOE in 1993 to provide regional advice, the board has seats for 32 Hanford-related interests. Its clout is in its diversity, representing the entire Hanford political spectrum from lefty Seattle environmentalists to Republican-oriented Tri-Cities business interests. Its strength comes from a requirement that the board come to a unanimous decision before taking an official stance; a requirement that has forced long-time foes to become staunch allies on most clean-up issues since the mid-1990s.

Seven seats are held by Tri-City area governments. One is held by the pro-nuclear Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council. Four seats go to the site's union and non-union employees. Six are held by regional whistleblower or environmental organizations. The League of Women Voters, the Benton-Franklin Health Department and the anti-nuclear Physicians for Social Responsibility each have a seat. Three seats go the the Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribal governments. The University of Washington and Washington State University each have a seat. Oregon has two and the public at large has four seats.

Four of the council's 32 seats are held by Seattle-based organizations or institutions — Hanford Challenge, Heart of America Northwest, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the University of Washington. Two of those Seattle seats have been held for 19 years by Gerald Pollet of Heart of America and Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge; both men have been Hanford critics since the 1980s and as such have acted as catalysts to change the way that the site tackles nuclear cleanup.

In fact, roughly 40 percent of the current board members, including Tri-Citians, Oregonians, tribal members and Seattlites, have been involved in the board and Hanford matters for 15 to 40-plus years.

The board's mission is to provide advice and feedback to the DOE and Hanford's two chief regulators, the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It has finagled extra clean-up money from a reluctant Washington, D.C., tackled excessive bureaucracy within Hanford, pushed hard for the clean-up of specific individual sites within the nuclear reservation and has been a significant factor in getting DOE to deal with the troubled $13 billion waste-glassification complex.

The board and its committee set their own agenda, independently of the feds and state — deciding what issues need further investigation and attention. Over the years, that independence often irritated DOE, which routinely turns over top managers in Washington, D.C. and Richland.

In 2003, the DOE claimed the board was too dominated by special interests, inefficient and needed to represent more people. It wanted to limit the issues that the board could address. At the time, there was an undercurrent of support in the DOE for eventually removing outspoken board members.The board, the EPA and the ecology department rejected that characterization, noting that the board's independence ensured the feds and state would get feedback untainted by corporate and D.C. agendas.

A similar attempt was made in 2008, at which point the Hanford board agreed to set term limits, as long as extensions could be made at the board's request. Since then, the board has always asked for extensions for term-limited members, and the DOE has almost always granted them.


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