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Hanford: Washington state officials push for escalated cleanup timeline

Hanford workers
Hanford workers
King 5 News

Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Eastern Washington, a former cold-war plutonium production plant for nuclear bombs, was established in 1943 and has been primarily decommissioned; leaving 177 massive holding tanks stored underground in caverns across 200 square acres filled with the most lethal sludge on the planet.

Washington state officials have grown weary of cleanup delays floated by the US Department of Energy after being told Monday by Secretary Earnest Moniz the original 2010 agreement on a cleanup deadline to be concluded in 2022 would be delayed by years, although some tanks have passed their shelf-life, with leaks discovered last year coming from 6 of them.

Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and director of Ecology Maia Bellon launched a two-stage plan on Friday to order a new timeline for emptying one particular double-shelled radioactive waste storage tank at Hanford known as AH-102. It developed a leak somewhere around two years ago that oozes up to 300 gallons a year into the ground.

The plan is the most aggressive action to be taken by the state in decades of tussles with the feds to get the plant’s old tanks replaced, radioactive material removed from the ground, the leaking tank dumped and the waste converted to glass logs for long-term storage.

King 5’s lead investigative journalist on the series “Hanford’s Dirty Secrets”, Susannah Frame explained it this way in her report, “After meeting with Moniz on Monday, Inslee said the Energy secretary's briefing failed to satisfy the state's demands that the overall Hanford cleanup be expedited. Specifically, the Energy Department had agreed to have the Waste Treatment Plant in initial operation by 2019 and in full production mode by 2022. The federal government has already said it will miss those deadlines by years.”

Senator Patty Murray, a staunch supporter of Hanford cleanup, received a “high-level debrief” on the state’s plan earlier in the week.

Bellon said in a statement, “we mean business,” in getting the legally binding cleanup schedule enforced. “Waiting another two years, at best, to initiate actions to address this hazardous condition is neither legally acceptable nor environmentally prudent. The state cannot afford further delays on removing waste from this tank."

Claiming no immediate threat to the “public or the environment posed by AY-102”, which is a highly debatable statement, Secretary Muniz’s office said they were “disappointed” with the order issued by state officials on Friday.

Is sequestration to blame?

This time last year, after sequestration cuts of the federal budget went into effect and 250 employees at Hanford received pink slips, while 2,500 out of 9,000 workers were put on furlough notice, according to a Huffington Post report.

It was uncertain at the time whether layoffs, which were union and nonunion workers, would adversely impact cleanup deadlines, but a year later, it may be a pretty safe bet.

Nonetheless, the Hanford dirty legacy, which includes decades of secretly pumping insufficiently treated waste water back into the Columbia River, just became a hotter issue than it has been in years, which could end up being resolved in the courts.