A Toxic Time Bomb in the Northwest

A closed reactor by the Columbia River on the Hanford site.
A closed reactor by the Columbia River on the Hanford site. (1988 Photo From The Associated Press)
By Chris Gregoire and Maria Cantwell
Monday, March 3, 2008

Buried in President Bush's proposed budget for next year is a story of broken promises. It's a story that puts our nation's honor -- and our environment, economy and families -- on the line.

The president wants to increase spending on every major category of our government's nuclear program except one: cleaning up the toxic legacy that lurks at nuclear reservations and facilities around the nation.

The administration wants more funding for nuclear weaponry, nuclear energy, nuclear science and management. But it would spend $800 million less on environmental cleanups at 20 federal nuclear sites in 14 states.

Its request for cleanups at nuclear sites in several states is the lowest since 1997.

Federal cleanups are not yet completed in Washington state, New York, South Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois, Kentucky, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Nevada or Utah. Our government is turning its back on long-standing commitments.

Nothing better illustrates why America must clean up the enormous quantities of waste at these sites than Hanford, our country's most-contaminated federal nuclear reservation. Here, the United States produced weapons-grade plutonium, unlocking the code to the power that helped win the Cold War.

The legacy of that era is a witches' brew of the world's most dangerous materials, housed in half-century-old storage tanks, that are contaminating nearby soils and aquifers.

Will America keep its promises and clean up this toxic legacy? Will our nation and Congress allow the administration to turn its back on millions of Americans?

Success won't come easily. Conscientious Americans must join the states that are living with unfinished nuclear cleanups to compel the Energy Department to get its program moving again.

And time is not on our side.

Just below ground at the Hanford site are 177 enormous steel tanks. They contain 53 million gallons of heavy metals, acids, solvents and highly radioactive elements, including plutonium, cesium, strontium and uranium. Sixty-seven tanks are confirmed leakers, and nearly all are well beyond their design lifespan.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the federal government and its contractors also buried thousands of tons of radioactive and hazardous waste in unlined landfills and injected 450 billion gallons of liquid waste into ponds, ditches and drainfields at the site. That is about the amount of water that flows through the Potomac River in a month.

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