Hard reality of cleanup at Hanford

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I was once on a tour of the Hanford nuclear reservation, hearing the government's plan to clean up the abandoned bomb factories, when the truth unexpectedly popped out.

The plan was to demolish nine nuclear reactors. Scrub toxic chemicals from hundreds of square miles of dirt and groundwater. Pump radioactive sludge from swimming-pool-sized tanks and ship it to Nevada.

In the end, Hanford would be clean, a place where you could hike, farm, even build a house.

A chemist joined the tour. I asked him about this vision.

"It isn't within the realm of possibility," he said. "There isn't enough money in the universe."

That was eight years ago. I was reminded of this incident last week, when the U.S. Senate voted to ease cleanup standards so some radioactive waste might be left forever at Hanford.

The local reaction to this vote was emphatic. Our two senators, environmentalists and the state's major newspapers accused the federal government of reneging on its pledge to fully clean up the most polluted place in the Western Hemisphere.

Well, yes. But as that chemist noted eight years ago — and as many scientists say today — the reality is that Hanford will always be radioactive.

Why do we keep pretending otherwise?

"The attempt to clean it all up is a fantasy," says Greg Dash, a University of Washington physicist. "It's going to be a national sacrifice area. We should be honest about that."

I don't fault our politicians for pushing for the best cleanup they can get. The feds dumped radioactive waste there for 50 years, then agreed to clean it up.

Fifteen years and $25 billion later, there has even been grudging progress. Example: The last of 2,300 tons of radioactive rods will be moved away from the Columbia River this summer.

In the middle of Hanford, though, the largest brew of radioactive waste sits largely untouched in underground tanks.

Of 177 tanks, so far only one has been drained. What's left inside is a few inches of hard, radioactive crust. This is what the debate is about. The feds want to cover drained tanks with concrete and leave them, making Hanford's central plateau off-limits for centuries.

They snuck in this major policy shift by changing the definition of radioactive waste. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell held up Senate debate for a week trying to defeat it. She was right to try.

But scientists have hinted for years that it's quixotic to insist on a full cleanup.

"A scientifically justified case can be made for leaving some of the waste there," says Tom Leschine, a UW professor who studied Hanford for 12 years for the National Research Council. "The problem is there's no commitment for long-term stewardship. You can't just pave it over and walk away."

The feds want to leave the waste, but don't want to safeguard it. Others want to remove it, but can't figure out how.

The clock is ticking. As always at Hanford, with each tick millions of dollars waft away on the desert winds.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.