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Time Ticking On 40-Day Negotiations Over Cleanup Of Hanford Tanks

Tobin Fricke

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 that any 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.

There was also 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. 

"After that date if we haven’t reached agreement on our issues we are free to ask the court to make a decision,” said Mary Sue Wilson, one of the top state lawyers working this issue for Washington state.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy's Kevin Smith, a top manager at Hanford, said, “I’ll have to defer to the Department of Justice for the moment 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 sludge at Hanford, some of which are now leaking. It is the leftovers from plutonium production during World War II and the Cold War.

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.

“We don’t think that we have an unlimited period of time,” she said.

The Department of Energy argues that new tanks, or the hasty draining of existing 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.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.