Time Ticking On Forty-Day Negotiations Over Cleanup Of Hanford Tanks

By Anna King

The clock is ticking on the 40-day 40-night compromise deadline between Washington State and the federal government for cleaning up Hanford’s leaking radioactive waste tanks. But at Hanford’s annual update for the public in Richland this week, it was clear agreement between the state and the federal government is still a ways off.

At some points during the recent meeting it appeared as if the crowd of nearly 200 was close to mutiny. Ice water was running low, the room temperature was climbing and the audio system failed.

And there was an awkward scene playing out in the front of the hall. State and federal officials sat at the same linen-clad table. They all politely answered the public’s questions. But it was clear they didn’t agree. And that’s something they must do by early June if they want to avoid litigation. Then, it’s high noon.

Mary Sue Wilson: “After that date if we haven’t reached agreement on our issues we are free to ask the court to make a decision.”

Mary Sue Wilson is one of the top state lawyers working this issue for Washington state. As for the feds...

Kevin Smith: “I’ll have to defer to the Department of Justice for the moment …”

Kevin Smith is a top manager for the federal side of things at Hanford. He says “… as it’s in a 40-day period and they want us to keep those issues in the attorney-client privilege at the moment.”

This fight is all over how to clean up the 177 large underground tanks of radioactive goo at Hanford -- some of them are now leaking. All this hot sludge is the leftovers from plutonium production during WWII and the Cold War. Mary Sue Wilson says the feds haven’t kept promises on tank cleanup deadlines and are not willing to share more detailed plans for the difficult work ahead.

Mary Sue Wilson: “We don’t think that we have an unlimited period of time.”

The Department of Energy argues that new tanks, or hasty draining of tanks is a band-aid that won’t fix the overall problem. And it says it doesn’t have the projected budget to meet the state’s proposed deadlines anyway. Instead, federal Energy officials say they want to focus on the end goal. That means finishing construction on the waste treatment plant - but that has technical problems all of its own.


Read the federal Energy’s plan on tank cleanup here:

Read Washington Ecology's proposal here:

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