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Conflict brews on Hanford cleanup goals

Paige Knight, president of the advocacy group Hanford Watch, said Hanford administrators recently decided, without promised public debate, to pursue an alternate technology for treating tank waste that hasn't been scientifically proved.

Conflict brews on Hanford cleanup goals

Critics say the U.S. Department of Energy is hurrying work at the nuclear site, but officials say standards are being met


In the past year, the long saga of Hanford Nuclear Reservation has reached a dramatic turning point.

There is unprecedented progress on cleaning the vastly polluted site, say regulators and environmentalists. But many add they have never been more worried that the U.S. Department of Energy will try to limit further cleanup, leaving Hanford significantly polluted for generations to come.

"The Department of Energy is articulating now where they want to go," said Greg deBruler, Hanford analyst for the Columbia Riverkeeper environmental group. "The Department of Energy wants to get out real fast."

The conflicting feelings on the former nuclear-processing site flow from two historic changes in the Energy Department's project to clean the 586-square mile location on the Columbia River in Southeast Washington.

In recent years, workers have finished several pressing, safety-related projects -- such as stabilizing potentially explosive waste tanks -- that have let them focus on long-term cleanup plans. At the same time, the Bush administration accelerated efforts to clean all U.S. nuclear-waste sites by emphasizing efficiency, such as paying contractors more for working quickly. But critics say the government is also "accelerating" by lowering its standards, so it can leave sites sooner, with more pollution remaining.

"There are two sides to this coin. One side is tremendous on-the-ground progress," said Doug Riggs, coordinator of the Hanford Information Network advocacy group. "What I see today is the flip side of this coin, which is a rejection of public comment . . . and a top-down, we-know-best approach."

Hanford's leaders agree big changes are being made but deny that they are out to shortchange legal requirements for cleaning the site.

"What we're trying to do is look at a range of options," said Keith Klein, manager of the site's Richland Operations Office. But Klein said any choices will hew to state and federal environmental laws, and follow agreements with Washington state and federal environmental regulators.

Worry and pride in progress bubbled up at public "State of the Site" meetings Hanford officials held last week.

Recent accomplishments include stabilizing radioactive waste at the site's "Plutonium Finishing Plant," moving all spent nuclear fuel from riverfront basins and carting about half the polluted soil away from the river. Workers have channeled most of the liquid waste in leak-prone, single-shelled, underground tanks to safer double-shelled tanks. Construction crews are making progress on a complex of factories that will melt the liquid waste into glass, which can be stored more safely.

Such progress raises a series of questions for the future: How should empty liquid waste tanks be cleaned and disposed of? How far must the government go to clean every last bit of riverfront?

Klein and others use one phrase to define the problem: "How clean is clean?"

Many environmentalists want most of the site cleaned for "unrestricted use," meaning people could drink the water or live on the land, even if the cleanup takes decades.

But Klein says parts of Hanford may be so polluted that cleanup hits a point of diminishing returns, bringing much more cost and worker-safety risk than benefit. Some Energy Department officials question how much deep-buried groundwater or soil can reasonably be cleaned, for instance.

Instead, Hanford administrators say it may be wiser to clean defined parts of the site to lower standards, such as for industrial use.

At the same time, Energy officials want to explore faster and cheaper ways to finish cleanup, such as novel ways of treating liquid waste.

But advocates balk at many of those ideas, including proposals to: Designate some groundwater at Hanford as suffering "irreversible and irretrievable" pollution, freeing the government from some cleanup. Designate the 51-mile stretch of Columbia shorefront as a park for recreational use. That assumes people would use the land only about 56 hours a year, letting the government clean less than if it planned for "unrestricted" use. Figure out new ways to treat 60 percent of the liquid waste instead of sending it all through glass melters, like those under construction. Permanently close 40 underground waste tanks within several years, though only one tank is empty of waste now, and no one has defined how to treat and "close" tanks.

Such ideas worry Oregon and Washington officials, who are asking the Energy department to reconsider some recent proposals. Linda Hoffman, interim director of Washington's Department of Ecology, sent a letter asking top Energy Department leaders "to engage in thoughtful conversation" about their plans, which "bring to a head" debates on the site's long-term use.

Oregon officials worry that the Energy Department is too quickly moving to make irreversible decisions about such issues as Hanford's future land use.

"We think it's ludicrous to assume that you know what the future land use will be there for hundreds or thousands of years," said Ken Niles, assistant director for nuclear safety of the Oregon Department of Energy. "Rather than restrict the use of land in the future, we would rather see a better cleanup now."

Environmental advocates have sharper words for the Energy Department. Several say officials in Washington, D.C., are making decisions with less public opinion and scientific data than ever.

Paige Knight, president of the advocacy group Hanford Watch, said Hanford administrators recently decided, without promised public debate, to pursue an alternate technology for treating tank waste that hasn't been scientifically proved.

"They're trying to make decisions without the data," she said. "I'm wondering how much we're going to be left high and dry. . .I don't believe that these people sincerely have our best interests at heart."

Advocates say their fears are exacerbated by a federal proposal to ship tons of radioactive waste from other Energy Department sites to Hanford for treatment and, in some cases, storage. Moreover, the site's plans call for using unlined soil waste trenches into 2007, instead of moving entirely to lined trenches this year, as once discussed.

"The Department of Energy wants to get out of cleaning this," deBruler told dozens of people gathered at a Portland meeting last week. "I've been working on this 15 years, and now is the time for people to come together and say, 'No.' "

Andy Dworkin: 503-221-8239;  andydworkin@news.oregonian.com

homepage: homepage: http://hanfordwatch.org