It's highly unlikely that an earthquake or other natural disaster will seriously damage Hanford's Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility, where 13 feet of water keep 106 million curies of radioactivity, or 32 percent of the total radioactivity at Hanford, safely contained.
But it is the Department of Energy facility at the greatest risk of failing if there is ever a natural disaster beyond what it was designed to sustain, according to a memo released last week by the Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General.
"Weakened concrete in the walls of the pool increases the risk that a beyond-design earthquake would breach the walls, resulting in the loss of fluid, and thus, loss of shielding for the capsules," the memo said.
That's a troubling, if unlikely, scenario. A loss of water or cooling in the pool could cause the capsules to corrode or be breached. The resulting environmental hazard and cleanup costs would be horrendous.
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But while such an event is hypothetical, DOE's failure to adequately mitigate the risks is real.
The department planned to start putting the capsules in dry storage in Hanford's T Plant in late 2005, but the work was canceled after DOE decided it had more pressing environmental cleanup concerns.
The Obama administration hasn't helped. The capsules had been destined for permanent disposal at the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nev., national repository, which the president unilaterally decided to abandon after $13 billion had been spent on the site.
Legal challenges might yet force DOE to continue pursuing a repository at Yucca Mountain, but that's far from certain. DOE plans to pick a new site for a repository in 2048, but there's no reason to think an alternative location won't fall victim to the same sort of political shenanigans as Yucca Mountain.
At any rate, the Obama administration is responsible for extending the risks posed by Hanford's capsules for years, at least, and probably decades.
Moving the wastes to safer dry storage ought to be a priority. It is certainly a moral obligation. But instead of providing money to accelerate the project, the administration has proposed cutting spending for projects under the Hanford Richland Operations Office by almost $100 million in fiscal 2015.
The government's inertia in dealing with the capsules defies logic for more than one reason. Besides posing additional environmental risks, the failure to act also is fiscally irresponsible.
Moving the capsules to dry storage would cost an estimated $83 million to $136 million. But then the storage cost would drop to $1 million a year compared to the current underwater storage cost of $7.2 million annually.
DOE eventually must move the capsules to dry storage, so the sooner that is done, the more money can be saved in reduced operating costs, the memo said.
DOE agrees that dry storage would reduce operating costs and improve safety, said Ray Corey, DOE assistant manager for Hanford river and plateau work.
Cheaper, safer, inevitable and the right thing to do. Why hasn't it been done already?