Blaine Harden, The Washington Post, November 2, 2006
RICHLAND, Wash. – Out on the Hanford nuclear reservation, a fantastically poisoned plateau where the federal government brewed up most of the plutonium for its nuclear arsenal, the cleanup is going rather badly.
Now in its 17th year, the nation’s largest and most complex environmental remediation project is costing many billions of dollars more than expected and will continue far longer than experts once predicted.
That dismal forecast is music to the ears of local residents.
“The silver lining is all local, where there are no consequences for failure and no misdeed goes unrewarded,” said Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and a former Energy Department official who monitored the cleanup during the Clinton era.
By almost every measure, except the radiation and chemical illnesses suffered by some Hanford workers, five decades of making bombs were a blessing to Pasco, Kennewick and Richland – neighboring towns along the Columbia River that call themselves the Tri-Cities.
The area was transformed from a poor, mostly empty rural backwater to a highly educated, solidly middle-class center for nuclear technology, albeit one that bordered North America’s most dangerous radioactive dump.
When plutonium production halted in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was widespread local fear that the Tri-Cities would themselves fall into penury. But cleaning up Hanford’s colossal nuclear mess is proving more lucrative – for the locals – than making it in the first place.
What’s more, said Michele Gerber, a Cold War historian who has written a critical history of Hanford and now works for one of the private contractors cleaning up the 586-square-mile site, the effort is a more stable engine for job creation, housing construction and business investment than making plutonium, which tended to wax and wane with foreign security threats and international nuclear treaties.
“I think the cleanup will last a hundred years,” she says.
With taxpayers footing the bill, the failure to make progress in sanitizing the Hanford site means that more and more federal spending will be showered on the sagebrush semi-desert in eastern Washington, and that residents can look forward to more decades of growth, prosperity, rising real estate values and better restaurants.
At Hanford, the bungled big-ticket project of the moment is a gargantuan factory that would, if it ever works, transform high-level waste into glass logs suitable for long-term storage elsewhere. The plant has already cost $3.4 billion but has yet to process a single gallon of the 53 million gallons of deadly waste stored in 177 underground tanks.
Construction stalled this year when the Energy Department discovered that factory designers had underestimated the risk of earthquakes. Now, department officials say the earliest the plant can start up is 2019, by which time it will have cost $12.2 billion, more than double the estimate of three years ago.
During a recent tour of the site, Gerber spoke in chilling detail about “the long waiting game” before contamination can be cleaned up. She said that if there were a teacup of Hanford’s high-level waste on the bus, it would kill or grievously sicken everyone on board within an hour.
Candor, in the cleanup context, is good politics. The more dangerous the site’s waste is perceived to be, the more likely the federal government is to continue pumping in money to take care of it.
That spending, Gerber said, has been about $2 billion a year for the past 11 years and is likely to continue for a decade. The cleanup, assuming that the new processing plant starts operating by 2019, will then take at least 20 to 25 more years, an official said.