Cleanup requires balance of concern with confidence

April 5, 2013 

The sky is not falling.

That is what we need to remember each time we hear of another deterrent to Hanford cleanup.

The work has been in the news in recent weeks because of reports of possible leaks from waste storage tanks and, most recently, the potential for explosions caused by fumes in the holding tanks.

We know there is no perfect road map for the cleanup of nuclear waste. Surprises and setbacks are to be expected. This is a one-of-a-kind effort. When workers find something out of line, the work stops while the new discovery is evaluated and plans are adapted to deal with it.

The materials workers are dealing with at Hanford are dangerous, and the items need to be handled with care and proper attention. But nowhere will you find more specialists skilled in this task and its nuances.

And our economy is the beneficiary of those entreprenuers and government contractors.

Issues of safety and proper disposal are dealt with daily at the cleanup site. Such is the nature of the work. It is nothing new.

But each time a politician receives a report about Hanford cleanup -- along with a watch list of potential issues -- it's like the pitfalls have been discovered anew.

And a mild panic ensues as new headlines about old news race across the country like they are recent discoveries with no plan for mitigation.

The issue of the potential for tank explosions came to the forefront once again when Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., requested a list of current issues at Hanford.

Wyden is the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and had asked for the list before the confirmation hearing for the new Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz.

"The next secretary of energy -- Dr. Moniz -- needs to understand that a major part of his job is going to be to get the Hanford cleanup back on track, and I plan to stress that at his confirmation hearing next week," Wyden said in a statement.

Indeed, Hanford cleanup needs to be a priority for Moniz, and he'll need to be well versed in the issues at hand -- and those looming in the future.

Moniz will be a driving force in keeping Hanford at the top of the project's list and keeping the money flowing to get the job done.

But the issue regarding the flammable fumes in tanks is nothing new to us. It's not new to Wyden, either.

Two decades ago, he passed legislation creating a "Wyden watch list" of Hanford tanks that posed a risk of hydrogen explosions, and a plan to address them.

Wyden joined Hanford workers to celebrate when issues regarding the safety of the 56 tanks on his list were resolved in 2001.

Slow and steady wins the race, and that is true of the cleanup project at Hanford. You don't rush the process of handling and storing radioactive waste. Bad things can happen. We have the systems, monitors and ability to do the job safely. And when that safety can't be ensured, work stops and plans are re-evaluated.

It can be a frustrating, time-consuming and painstaking process. But this is nothing new.

We are dealing with it and working on it every day.

All it is going to take to clean up Hanford are time and money, a little ingenuity and patience, and a reasoned approach to the long-term storage of waste.

A little less panic and a little more praise for the work that has been done wouldn't hurt, either.

One of these decades, the job will be done.

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