Hanford cleanup: Calling Robert Oppenheimer

The News TribuneApril 7, 2014 

Gov. Jay Inslee, at podium, joined by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson on March 31, outlines a proposed plan to revise the 2010 Hanford Reservation Consent Decree while demanding the federal government speed up the site cleanup process.

STEVE BLOOM/STAFF PHOTO

In World War II, the Manhattan Project invented the nuclear chain reaction, created a host of unprecedented technologies, and built vast industrial plants to create explosives of unimagined and terrifying power.

That took 31/2 years.

At Hanford, the Manhattan Project built the first industrial nuclear reactors and began producing plutonium for nuclear weapons.

That took a year and a half.

Operating through the cold war, Hanford’s reactors produced radioactive wastes, including toxic sludges packed with deadly cesium-137 and strontium-90.

Estimated cleanup time: A half-century and counting. Seventy-five years might be a good bet.

For the U.S. government – and more recently, for Barack Obama and Sen. Harry Reid in particular – the parallels are damning.

If the U.S. government had pursued the cleanup with even a smidgen of the urgency it invested in the original creation of the bomb, those radioisotopes would have been safely buried years ago. The political will is nowhere to be seen, and the brainpower seems to be in short supply, too.

Washingtonians have been reduced to pleading with U.S. officials, decade after decade, to take more interest in restoring Hanford to a safe condition and preventing radioactivity from seeping from rotting storage tanks toward the Columbia River.

Once again last week, Washington leaders had to threaten to sue the Energy Department – the Manhattan Project’s slow grandchild – for missing court-ordered cleanup milestones. Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson demanded that Energy shift radioactive crud from leaker tanks into new ones and step up the final disposal effort. Is that too much to ask?

The centerpiece of the disposal plan is a “vitrification” plant that would seal and stabilize the cesium and strontium in large glass cylinders and bury them in an underground repository.

But Obama – at the behest of Reid – has shut down the best repository site ever identified on the planet, Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Senate majority leader is from Nevada, and the president wants to stay on his good side. Politics, not science, is the reason reactor core wastes from Hanford and the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants have no place to go.

In the meantime, Energy has inched forward on vitrification at a pace that makes glaciers look like sports cars. Under a 1989 agreement with the state, it was supposed to begin glassifying the wastes in 1999. That deadline has slipped, slipped and slipped. Vitrification has been under study now for more than 30 years, and the people at Energy never stop yapping about the complexity of it all. Fusion seems to be easier.

We don’t doubt the trickiness of putting cesium and strontium atoms into glass. You want to be careful with this stuff. But is it that much harder and time-consuming than inventing the entire foundation of nuclear energy from scratch?

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