Our Voice: Inslee's concern about tank leaks should be call for urgency, but no cause for panic

March 12, 2013 

We appreciate Gov. Jay Inslee's concern over the leaky tanks at Hanford. It's imperative the state keeps pressure on the federal government to fulfill its obligations.

But we're a little apprehensive about how his message might be perceived by the rest of the state, nation and world.

Yes, there are huge amounts of radioactive muck sitting in deteriorating tanks just a few miles from the Columbia River. Yes, something needs to be done about it.

There is a problem. A big one. It needs to be taken care of.

However, at the risk of sounding complacent, we are not alarmed about the situation -- and we live here. We bathe in and drink from the water of the Columbia River. And plan to continue to do so.

We are concerned about the leaky tanks, but we also are concerned about possible fearmongering about nuclear waste and radioactive material.

People who are removed from the situation and only hear the bad news might extrapolate a 30-second blurb on the problem into something much worse than it is.

Handwringing is not the same as problem solving.

People love bad news. A word of gossip spreads much faster than a song of praise.

We advocate thoughtful and thorough understanding of what's really going on at Hanford, not some alarming headlines.

"Leaky tanks leach radioactive material into the ground near Columbia River!" seems like a short step to "Run, hide, we're all gonna die!" Or perhaps this is the message that people concoct: Because there are leaky tanks, we should discontinue our nuclear energy portfolio.

This probably is a more likely response, but equally baseless and ill formed. Only a small percentage of the public outside our community understands how far removed nuclear energy is from the weapons-grade plutonium production that produced Hanford's stockpile of nuclear wastes.

Don't get us wrong.

We are eager for the federal government to fulfill its obligation to clean up the waste at Hanford -- the sooner the better.

We want to see the Tri-Party Agreement between the Department of Energy and state and federal regulators honored and completed.

Maybe sending 40,000 drums of transuranic waste to New Mexico (as the governor is recommending) is a good idea -- if New Mexico is willing to take it.

Certainly getting the vitrification plant online to turn Hanford's liquid wastes into glass logs would help with our situation.

It's a complex mess out there. But not an impossible one to deal with. The problem is urgent, but not alarming.

It also is science. And it's fascinating. And our past opens doors to clean, reliable energy for the future.

Even the bad news contains opportunity for learning, figuring and solving.

Because this is a problem that has never been faced, we will find answers to questions that no one has thought to ask before.

There must be a balance between walking around with our heads in the clouds and the sky falling on all of us.

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