Cleaning up nuclear waste at the Hanford reservation in Eastern Washington is one of this state’s most critical and vexing environmental problems. The site is so dangerous to the people and environment along the Columbia River that every Washington resident ought to keep an eye on the progress.
“The contaminants out there are so dangerous and so long-lived… We should be absolutely insisting that the federal government clean that site up, whatever the cost,” Jay Manning told me three years ago.
Manning was the director of the Department of Ecology when I interviewed him about the state’s top environmental problems. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 16, 2008. He has since become the governor’s chief of staff. See Water Ways, Oct. 5, 2009.
Since then, the federal government has poured billions into the project, including a significant boost of dollars with the economic stimulus package. Now that effort is being pared back, with a significant loss of jobs, as Annette Cary reports in the Tri-City Herald.
Converting huge amounts of nuclear waste into a safer form is a difficult technological and logistical problem, as reporter Craig Welch points out in a pair Seattle Times stories published Jan. 22 and Jan. 23.
These stories bring you into the meat of the problem. But I have
to say that I was equally impressed by a short piece I heard last
night on KUOW radio. Reporter Anna King helps us understand the
nature of problem from the perspective of people who have made a
career out of cleaning up Hanford’s waste. These grizzled employees
have learned from years of experience, and are now about to turn
over their projects to a new generation. The newcomers will learn
to navigate the minefields of nuclear risk — but they, too, may be
retired before the job is done. Quoting from her piece:
“Bob Heineman is a bit like the sage sea captain of the Plutonium Finishing Plant. He knows this ship with all its creeks and leaks. Heineman’s the head guy here for a federal contractor called CH2MHill.
“Even just this one facility on Hanford is super complicated – and there are hundreds of situations like this out here.
“At Heineman’s plant, there’s an entire building where a radioactive explosion decades ago contaminated everything inside. He’s steered work safely here for years, problem is: Hieneman plans on retiring in the next three to four years.
“Standing at his side is Jenna Coddington. She’s 27 years old and she’s Luke Skywalker to his Yoda.”
Be sure to play the audio, which can be found on KUOW’s