The work going on at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation — cleanup of radioactive material used for making atomic bombs — is serious business. Very serious.
Mistakes, even small ones, could have deadly and long-lasting environmental consequences.
And this is why Washington state’s ongoing and aggressive effort to provide oversight to the work being done under the auspices of the federal government is wise and welcome.
Monday, the state issued a fine of just over $1 million to the U.S. Department of Energy, accusing it of restricting access to important information about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, according to the Tri-City Herald.
The state Department of Ecology relies on information from Energy Department and its contractors to provide oversight and ensure the federal government is meeting standards set by the state to protect the environment.
“Without access to this data, we can’t effectively protect the land, air and water for residents in Eastern Washington and surrounding communities,” said Polly Zehm, Ecology’s acting director.
One of the Hanford projects Ecology regulates is the cleanup of aging underground tanks — some leaking — that store 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste. These date back to World War II when plutonium used in the the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan — named “Fat Man” — was made.
Given that Walla Walla is just over 60 miles away from Hanford as the crow flies — and wind blows — nothing should be left to chance when it comes to eliminating this health-and-safety threat.
The cleanup work at Hanford is already about 25 years behind schedule and the federal government, whether under Republican or Democrat leadership, continues to give short shrift in the budget year after year.
The bottom line is that the state must keep eyes on the project.
That’s not been a simple task as the Department of Energy has been stingy with information.
“An agreement toward data access should have happened years ago,” Zehm told the Tri-City Herald. “We reached agreement in principle with Energy several times, but in the end, Energy chose to simply declare that it had met its obligations and walked away from the table.”
This difference of opinion won’t be resolved quickly. In the meantime, the state Department of Ecology needs to keep the pressure on for the public good.