No more delays in cleaning up toxic Hanford tanks

Hanford's B Reactor produced the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.
Hanford's B Reactor produced the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. AP file, 2007

Today the world solemnly commemorates the dawning of the Atomic Age, the day 70 years ago when the first nuclear weapon was dropped on a city — Hiroshima, Japan — during World War II. Three days later, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb, destroying the port city of Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945.

A visitor to the two bustling, modern Japanese cities has to seek out reminders of those bombings. But half a world away, where plutonium was produced for the Nagasaki bomb and Cold War nuclear arsenals, the past is all too present — and a threat to the future.

At Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Eastern Washington, radioactive waste accumulated over decades awaits disposal. But the cleanup history has been one of delays, insufficient funding, cost overruns and political strong-arming. Today, cleanup is 25 years behind schedule.

The state of Washington, naturally, is concerned about having the nation’s biggest collection of nuclear waste in close proximity to the Columbia River. Of particular concern are nine leak-prone tanks holding radioactive waste.

If the tanks are not cleaned up, contaminants could reach the Columbia in the next few decades, according to the state Department of Ecology. That agency shares oversight responsibility of Hanford cleanup activities with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

State officials are concerned that the federal agency in charge of cleanup, the Department of Energy, is trying to once again seeking to delay. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has asked a federal judge to hold DOE to cleanup deadlines agreed to in a 2010 consent decree — entered into after it became clear that DOE would miss even earlier deadlines.

DOE claims that greater attention to worker safety has reduced efficiency by 30 to 70 percent, making it unable to meet the agreed-upon cleanup timetable of 2022. It seeks to reset the deadline to 2023. The state’s response: This is just one more example of DOE’s lack of contingency planning.

The federal judge appears more favorable to the state’s position than to DOE’s. Good; perhaps a court decree will hold more water with DOE than a consent decree.

The state of Washington did its part for the WWII effort 70 years ago. The federal government must uphold its obligation to clean up the toxic legacy left over from the race to build the atomic bomb.