The horrendously delayed and expensive cleanup of the toxic Hanford nuclear site challenges skeptics to downgrade even the most pessimistic assumptions about government efficiency, or rather the lack thereof. Adding to concerns, there now comes news of a classic case of trying to hush-up a whistle-blower who has a scary theory about future risk at this Columbia River complex.

In the first place, it stretches the meaning of the word “cleanup” to attach it to what has so far occurred at Hanford. It is worth noting this enlightening summary of the situation in the current issue of London-based Economist magazine:

“Until the Japanese catastrophe of last weekend, the biggest nuclear mess in the Western world could be found at the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state, where America’s government once made most of the plutonium for its nuclear weapons. More than two decades after the cleanup began, officials have yet to deal with any of the nasty stuff.

“At the Hanford site, which sprawls across a sagebrush plain in the south-east of the state, none of the 53m gallons … of highly toxic waste stored in 177 ageing and leaky underground tanks has been mopped up, even though the last reactor was shut down in 1987. That must wait until 2019, when a unique waste-treatment plant — described as the largest and most expensive nuclear clean-up project ever undertaken — will begin transforming radioactive leftovers that could poison the nearby Columbia river into still-radioactive glass logs more suitable for long-term storage. If all goes well, gunk-to-glass processing (“vitrification”) will continue until at least 2047 and cost about $74 billion, more than the annual budget of America's Department of Education.”

So … 53 million gallons of highly toxic atomic waste stored in underground tanks near the Columbia River — what could go wrong?

This amounts to more than 26,000 10-yard dump truck loads of deadly poison — enough to cover a football field to a height of 150 feet. 

If all this is not sufficiently worrisome, the latest news is that a “whistleblower was removed from his senior job last year after warning that the plant could explode once the operation starts,” according to the Economist and other major newspapers. This is sparking a major confrontation between the Department of Energy, which runs the Hanford operation, and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which monitors how things are going.

On top of these life-and-death issues, the Hanford cleanup has long since turned into a massive government boondoggle. The Tri-Cities area is awash in federal money. In 2010, the area’s job growth was the highest in the entire U.S. Unlike much of the rural dry-side of the Pacific Northwest where a shopper would be lucky to find an open store to purchase a Carhartt barn coat, a shop recently opened in Kennewick selling $800 handbags. Some residents actively wish for many more years of agency blunders and cost-overruns.

Worry about Japanese reactor fallout contaminating our West Coast is entirely misplaced. We should be loudly and actively advocating for effective solutions at the nuclear disaster in our own backyard.

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