The Colombian

In Our View: Sunday, April 16, 2000

Bad Dream

The news from Hanford couldn't get any worse, right? Uh oh.

It now seems entirely possible that half a century of toxic spoils from atomic bomb-making at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation will never be cleaned up.

The facility's 54 million gallons of high-level radioactive wastes will continue to sit in 177 massive underground storage tanks. More than a third of those tanks are already leaking; the rest soon will -- if they don't explode first.

Any that don't blow up will continue to contaminate the ground water, which will eventually pollute the Columbia River. The few salmon that haven't been killed by dams or logging will die of radiation poisoning. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic area will become a nuclear cesspool. And Vancouver's waterfront, barely 200 miles downstream from Hanford, will be not a gorgeous asset to our community but a dangerous liability.

Paranoia? Maybe. But for decades Hanford has demonstrated a horrifying tendency to surpass even the most nightmarish scenario.

Radiation releases have been hushed up; workers' and the public's health has been imperiled; catastrophic accidents have, in a least a couple of cases, been avoided through sheer luck alone. Meanwhile, clean-up projects at the 560-square-mile reservation have stalled or been abandoned, deadlines have been missed and $15 billion has been spent on environmental restoration -- with almost nothing to show for it.

The bill is only going to grow. Last week, President Clinton announced plans to compensate thousands of nuclear defense workers nationwide who were killed or sickened by exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals. The program marks a total reversal of the U.S. government's long-standing but long-discredited assertion that Hanford and other bomb factories were perfectly safe, that their employees' cancers, lung diseases and other health problems were unconnected to their jobs and probably imaginary anyway.

The workers and their families deserve the money; as much as any front-line soldier, they put their health, their lives and their futures on the line to defend the United States from its enemies, both real and imagined. But the price tag for the government's carelessness and lies? More than half a billion dollars for the next five years alone.

Yet even that looks like pocket change compared to the latest financial boondoggle out of Hanford. BNFL, the British-based company that's supposed to be the prime contractor for the facility's clean-up program, unexpectedly announced last week that it had vastly underestimated the cost of turning those 54 million gallons of dangerous radioactive waste into slightly less dangerous radioactive glass logs.

The revelation left state officials and members of Congress reeling. Funds have not been found to cover the original $6.9 billion bill; now BNFL says the work will cost a staggering $13 billion. Company officials offered no explanation other than, basically, that they goofed. Some goof.

And it could not have come at a worse time for BNFL, whose workers in England were caught falsifying months' worth of important documents regarding the safety of plutonium shipments overseas. BNFL's bosses at Hanford have proved themselves no more trustworthy: Just two weeks ago, the state of Washington was forced to impose a new timetable for cleanup after U.S. Department of Energy officials repeatedly refused to agree to reasonable deadlines.

It's easy to expect that BNFL will be fired or will pull out of the Hanford project. It's easy to see DOE once again reneging on its promises to get the cleanup program moving. It's easy to imagine another accident at Hanford that will further threaten the environment and human health throughout much of the region.

It's not easy to see how this deadly mess will find a solution anytime soon, or ever.

-- Michael Zuzel,

for the editorial board