Clock is ticking on Hanford cleanup

President Bush's request for nuclear waste cleanup is pitifully short. It is much easier to make a mess than it is to clean it up. We're unlucky to have at our doorsteps one of the great all-time examples of this in the form of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near the Columbia River in southeastern Washington state.

Hanford has 177 steel underground storage tanks — 67 of them leaking — which contain a potently toxic concoction of radioactive heavy metals and other waste products from the nation's decades of super-secret atomic weapons research. Unlined landfills, ponds, drainfields and ditches at the site contain vast additional quantities of awful stuff, any single barrel of which would result in a code red terrorism alert if it was dumped in downtown Washington, D.C.

Cleanup costs are pegged at $50 billion, and federal funding of $1.9 billion is contained in President Bush's 2009 budget request. That is $36.5 million less than what's now being spent in the current budget cycle. Thus the president's request won't even keep pace with inflation.

Setting aside the frustrating fact that $36.5 million represents the cost of only about five hours of the Iraq War, the big picture is that the U.S. is putting Band-Aids on a Hanford problem that is going to become nothing but more expensive the longer we dawdle.

This isn't a case when paying on the installment plan is a good or effective idea. At the rate of less than $2 billion a year, it is safe to assume that little will be achieved for the next century or so but additional lining of the pockets of large corporate contractors.

As Gen. Colin Powell famously said of Iraq, "You break it, you own it." Hanford is a similarly expensive legacy of the federal government's fumble-fingered handling of war-related programs and problems, of acting without consideration for longterm consequences. For us and other Columbia River citizens, this slipshod propensity could have deadly consequences for many generations to come.

Prompt and thorough action is urgently required to contain what Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell describe as a "witches' brew of the world's most dangerous materials."

During his tenure, Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon made Hanford a high priority cause. So should Oregon's Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden.

Just imagine for a moment the panic and expense that will ensue if these materials leach from the groundwater into the Columbia River.

Hanford needs to be fixed, now and forever.

Share This Story