Our Voice: Important truth for Sen. Wyden's fact-finding mission to Hanford -- vitrification is essential

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's reputation as a Hanford critic is probably making some folks at the nuclear reservation nervous this morning.

Wyden, chairman of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is leading a fact-finding mission to Hanford's troubled vitrification plant and the historic B Reactor.

The contingent includes staff representing Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Rep. Doc Hastings and the state Department of Ecology. Peter S. Winokur, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, is also participating.

The agenda includes a meeting with whistleblowers who claim they faced retaliation at the vit plant for raising safety concerns.

Wyden's connection to Hanford whistleblowers dates back to the 1980s, when the Oregon Democrat was still serving in the House of Representatives.

After quality control inspector Casey Ruud went public with concerns about inadequate safety practices at Hanford's plutonium production facilities, Wyden weighed in.

"It's high time we begin to rein in this rogue agency," he told reporters then.

So, while it's easy to understand how this longtime critic's current interest in the vitrification plant might cause some heartburn at Hanford, we're hoping for good things from the visit.

For starters, the tour includes a trip to B Reactor, the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor, a key facility in World War II and the Cold War, and a centerpiece in the proposed Manhattan Project National Park.

As chairman of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Wyden will play a critical role in the creation of a new national park that includes this important nuclear artifact.

Nothing conveys B Reactor's power to bring history to life quite like a tour. We're glad Wyden made time to include the plant in his visit.

But we know much of the day will be spent learning more about the challenges facing vit plant construction. Just last week, another high-ranking official involved in the project filed a whistleblower lawsuit.

Donna Busche accused contractor Bechtel National and subcontractor URS Energy and Construction of working to fire her in retaliation for raising safety issues concerning the operation of the $12.3 billion vitrification plant -- charges the company denies.

Wyden's attention to the project is welcome, so long as it leads to improvements in safety and reliability without jeopardizing the schedule any further.

That doesn't mean ignoring important issues regarding safety and reliability, but Energy Secretary Steven Chu's recent focus on the plant's problems ought to give Wyden and others confidence.

Last year, construction slowed or halted at the plant while Chu and a hand-picked team of some of the nation's brightest technical minds reviewed technical issues.

Then last month, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire and Chu announced that the review had sufficiently answered key safety questions, allowing a limited ramp-up of construction work to restart.

It's crucial that work continues. The health and safety of the Northwest depends on it. Hanford's aging tanks are guaranteed to fail if the wastes aren't removed and treated.

Twenty years ago, Wyden blasted the Department of Energy for failing to keep Congress abreast of problems at Hanford's leak-prone tank farms.

He said that DOE and its contractor at Hanford were offering overly optimistic forecasts of tank issues that created a false sense of public confidence.

Much has been done to stabilize the tanks since 1993, but any delay in a permanent solution only increases the risk of catastrophic failures.

Just last week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that Hanford workers had discovered another leak of high-level radioactive wastes from a single-shell tank, underscoring the critical need to keep the vit plant on track.

We welcome Wyden's attention. It emphasizes the importance of the project. Our fear is that the quest for perfect solutions will result in dangerous delays in completing the plant.

The entire Northwest is watching progress at the vit plant as if the region's future depends on it, because it does.