Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
During World War II, the federal government took more than 586 square miles of desert in eastern Washington and set up what would become an immense nuclear processing facility. The Hanford Site, as it became known, played a critical role in the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal, producing roughly two-thirds of the plutonium the nation used.
Four decades of making nuclear bomb components left the site horribly contaminated, and cleaning up Hanford has been a nightmare. In addition to addressing problems with the soil and groundwater, the U.S. Energy Department is trying to dispose of 53 million gallons of toxic waste sitting in underground storage tanks. That hasn’t been easy.
The department settled on a plan to build a factory that would turn the waste into glass, trapping the radioactive material. There are facilities in South Carolina and in Europe that do similar things, but the Hanford factory would be unique — no one has undertaken this much or a mix of waste as toxic.
The Energy Department planned to send the glass, enclosed in stainless steel containers, to Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. But that was derailed by President Barack Obama’s wise decision to scrap the plans to build a nuclear waste dump there. Officials in Washington and other states with nuclear waste decried the president’s decision. But what they’ve failed to see is that the nation’s nuclear waste policy has failed, costing Americans billions of dollars as the government suffers delays, cost overruns and the lack of credible scientific answers.
The Energy Department has been dealing with these issues for decades and has yet to resolve them. At Hanford, it put the waste in underground tanks as it sought an answer. Several of the 177 tanks have heated up or spewed gas. Many of the tanks are aging and leaking. The site, which straddles the Columbia River, has an extensive problem with groundwater contamination, and several tanks have leaked.
And the glass-making factory has had problems with design and construction. The Government Accountability Office in 2009 raised problems with several critical factors in the plan. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which oversees the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons program, has repeatedly raised concerns with safety and technical issues. Scientists have warned about explosions potentially happening because of the design.
The Seattle Times recently reported that the plant, which is being built and expected to open in 2019, still has serious design issues that haven’t been resolved. While engineers grapple with those issues, cost estimates for the plant have nearly tripled to more than $12 billion — and that’s just for construction of the facility. The GAO says total costs of the cleanup effort could be more than $100 billion.
In other words, the Energy Department is going to spend billions of dollars despite concerns that the plant may not work properly and might even explode.
If this sounds familiar, it is. Yucca Mountain has much the same story — plagued by high costs, safety problems and unresolved issues. Yet people still want to move ahead with it, assuming that the science and solutions will follow — eventually.
That’s been a major problem with the nation’s nuclear waste policy. It’s risking people’s lives and wasting money hoping for answers down the road. As Hanford and Yucca Mountain show, the nation needs a new nuclear waste policy, one based on reasonable costs and the science available, instead of answers that may never come.