Tom Fletcher talks like a typical Hanford engineer.
Careful. Very precise. Reluctant to speculate beyond what is 100 percent known. More comfortable with the tech stuff than the political picture.
But techno-geekdom and politics are always intertwined at Hanford — and probably should be.
Fletcher — despite his goatee and spiky red hair — has been the U.S. Department of Energy's assistant manager for Hanford's 177 underground radioactive waste tanks for two years. He spent a half day Wednesday with roughly 20 reporters and camera operators touring Hanford's trouble spots and spending time with Gov. Jay Inslee. Fletcher talked engineering realities, but his bosses at the DOE did not tell him that they would also announce Wednesday that Hanford would truck a type of medium-radioactive wastes — "contact-handled transuranics" — from nine of the underground tanks to a permanent storage site in New Mexico. Consequently, a few reporters knew about the announcement before Fletcher did.
So Fletcher — prepared to discuss how Hanford expects to deal with six single-shell tanks believed to be leaking anew — found himself winging his way through numerous questions about removing wastes from nine tanks to send to New Mexico. Five of those nine tanks are also among the six new leakers, so the "whys" and "whats" were difficult to sort out.
The U.S. Department of Energy had been planning for a considerable time — way before the six new leaking tanks were announced — to send the waste from those nine contact-handled transuranic waste tanks to New Mexico. The New Mexico announcement managed to pop up about three weeks after the leaks became known, and the New Mexico plan is being touted as the solution to the leaking problem. But Fletcher had to field questions on why those tanks were not emptied before the leak showed up. All he could do was say that the plan was already in the works, and had to punt on the timing-of-the-announcement question.
Reporters followed Gov. Inslee Wednesday as he toured Hanford to get a handle on the new leaking tanks. He optimistically portrayed the New Mexico solution as a win for Washington.
But to Fletcher, Wednesday's announcement signaled a long list of unknowns and questions to be tackled. How to get the wastes out of the tanks without sluicing water into them, and inadvertently magnifying the leak problem? Where to put the wastes at Hanford after they are removed from the tanks? How to convert the peanut-butter-like gunk into something that can be stored in DOE's 2,150-foot-deep manmade cavern in New Mexico? What will the timetable be?
Inslee and Fletcher agreed that the work on those nine tanks, including five leakers, will take a few years, and that New Mexico will have to be convinced to let the tank wastes move within its borders. The sixth leaking tank holds wastes much more radioactive than transuranic materials, and will be its own separate fix-it problem.
This reintroduces Hanford into state politics — now as a problem to be faced by the rookie governor Inslee, who was the Hanford area's congressman from 1992 to 1994. Former Gov. Chris Gregoire made her bones in the late 1980s as director of the Washington Department of Ecology when she hammered out the Tri-Party Agreement with DOE. The Tri-Party Agreement is a legal pact among the state, DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to map out a binding cleanup schedule over the next few decades. The pact is routinely modified to reflect new realities at the site.
With Inslee being a hardcore enviro-geek, Hanford is a natural issue for him to focus on.
The state and EPA have constantly struggled with the DOE over numerous delays, cost increases and new problems at the site. Sometimes, the DOE is gung-ho about cleanup. Sometimes the feds want to put Hanford on a backburner, just because of the technical and budget headaches involved. Inslee joins a line of Washington governors trying to keep the feds from ducking out of their Hanford obligations.
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