Arrogance, Deceit, Betrayal -- Make Compensation Part Of The Hanford Cleanup

THE Cold War is over, and the federal government is admitting to casualties around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Financial compensation for the survivors should be computed into the price of cleaning up the nation's largest premeditated nuclear disaster.

Downwind from the 560-acre site, two generations in three states were victims of the arrogance and deceit of zealots who believed they labored for a higher cause.

In the perverse patriotism of the Cold War, the production of nuclear weapons was thought to justify the exposure of thousands of people to lethal health risks in the name of national security.

For the first time, the federal Energy Department has acknowledged that radiation released at the reservation during the 1940s and 1950s was sufficient to cause perilous illness, including cancer.

This admission is only a small part of a larger tragedy of conceit and contempt at Hanford.

For decades, residents of Washington, Oregon and Idaho suffered the silent assault of radiation released for experiments or expediency. Millions of curies of radiation were vented into the air or dumped into the Columbia River.

Willful, even cavalier, radiation poisoning was condoned by managers who waged bureaucratic wars against health and environmental safety.

Federal records and the latter-day candor of Energy Secretary James D. Watkins confirm that lies, deception and cover-ups were standard operating procedure.

As more of the horrific story is exposed, Hanford's apologists and defenders have introduced a not-too-subtle change to their good-nukes cant. For years they cooed that Hanford radiation levels were extraordinarily safe, and, besides, the managers had superior knowledge and ought to be trusted over alarmists.

That rhetoric has been revised to suggest that Hanford management operated in well-intended ignorance. Irradiated hogwash. The venting, dumping and leaking went on too long for that nonsense to hold heavy water.

Remedial action at Hanford has already begun, with Watkins cleaning out the current management and putting in his own team. The new players, with health and environmental backgrounds, will report directly to headquarters.

A year ago Watkins promised to send in ``tiger teams'' to track down weaknesses. Last week a lot of people got clawed.

Serious doubts exist about DOE's capacity to handle the health and safety aspects of Hanford cleanup. People inside and outside the government agree the job ought to be shared with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Watkins' willingness to give the Army Corps of Engineers responsibility for disposal of 600,000 cubic yards of nuclear waste is a telling admission of DOE's weaknesses.

Another disposal task: abandoning the notion that Hanford is anything but an expensive, contaminated basket case. The only thing active about Hanford is the cleanup. Another 30 years of jobs exist, but they are in disaster relief, not putting the bang in nuclear bombs or energizing a nukes-in-space project.

The Energy Department wants to spend $2.4 billion next year and up to $3.7 billion in each of the following four years for repairs, cleanup and expansion.

Those numbers must change because they do not include the human factor. Simultaneous studies ought to be launched to study thyroid disease, and to identify the adults who are at risk from exposure in infancy and childhood.

Finally, the issue of compensating Hanford victims cannot be avoided. Lives were endangered and, most likely, lost as a result of four decades of lies and deception by people who knew better and acted as though they didn't have to care.