Hanford: It’s back

When military contractors get hold of a juicy piece of pork, they are not inclined to let go. Even when the public and common sense demand that a ridiculous idea be abandoned, there is money to be made in the land of $800 screwdrivers, and so bad ideas keep coming back around.

That’s why, in the wake of a fire and plutonium release; the firing of the major Hanford contractor for incompetence, delays, and price gouging; a proposal to add still more low-level nuclear waste to its nearly infinite supply; and a speculative land rush for leftover acreage; Hanford officials have nothing better to do than push for the restart of the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) nuclear reactor. Even though the Department of Energy wisely decided that restarting the reactor and contributing further to the waste stream was not the best way to make tritium for nuclear weaponry—the last justification for a FFTF restart—contractors, DOE officials, and Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce types just can’t let go of your tax dollars.

This time, the rationale for FFTF restart is to produce Plutonium 238—a speck of which, inhaled, will kill you—for the nation’s space program and for medical isotopes to “cure cancer.” This is an absurd and costly idea for all the same reasons it was two years ago. Medical isotopes are widely available on the commercial market, at far cheaper costs than what FFTF would produce. The economic projection DOE officials produced to somehow convince elected officials that this boondoggle will eventually pay for itself assumes a 16 percent per year increase in the demand for medical isotopes over the lifetime of the plant. Simple math suggests that this would have every person in the United States in need of cancer treatment by the year 2030. (Given the DOE’s experience with downwinders, maybe they know something we don’t.)

Meanwhile, aside from the niggling problems of nuclear proliferation and the violations of disarmament treaties that dogged the FFTF restart proposal last time, there’s still the problem that the DOE doesn’t know what it will do with the extra waste it will produce at FFTF. Hell, it doesn’t know what to do with the waste it already has; Hanford is so laden with deadly chemical stews that it makes a Russian nuclear sub look like a safe idea. It is the most contaminated nuclear site in the Western Hemisphere and it is in our backyard. Think about that for a moment. Then realize that government officials have neither the money nor the inclination to get serious about cleaning it up and instead want to make it worse.

The DOE’s Environmental Impact Statement for FFTF restart has a simple solution for problems of waste disposal, financial implausibility, the availability and cost of medical isotopes, and the impact on nuclear nonproliferation treaties. It ignores them. All of these issues will be addressed in separate reports, which will be issued after the public comment period for the EIS expires. In other words, it’s a rigged game.

Gerry Pollett of Heart of America Northwest, a watchdog group that tries valiantly to catalog and combat the numerous misdeeds of Hanford officials, is blunt about the credibility of the managers presenting this scam. “They proved in the last two months that they will lie to the public about releasing plutonium into the air,” says Pollett, referring to the June 27 fire that released plutonium 1,000 times greater than background levels into the air around the Tri-Cities. DOE officials initially denied that a plutonium release was even possible—one official ludicrously claimed that the plutonium particles would fall to the ground harmlessly inside the windy reservation because plutonium is heavier than air. They still have no idea how the plutonium got there. Their record of informing workers and the public about the hazards involved in handling this deadly stuff is abysmal.

With all this—and a further DOE proposal to store almost all of the nation’s supply of low-level waste at Hanford because the site is already so badly contaminated—”trust” is not a word being thrown around a lot about these guys. FFTF restart is a cruel, expensive, and dangerous hoax.

The Department of Energy is holding hearings around the Pacific Northwest to solicit comments on the EIS. Chances are they’ve made up their mind anyway, but it can’t hurt to demonstrate to the elected officials who supervise the Department that the public is onto this little game. The Seattle hearing will be held August 30, at 6:30pm at the Trade and Convention Center; a prehearing to brief newcomers will start at 5:45. If you can’t attend but would like to comment, try calling toll free at 1-877-562-4593; the Web site for comments is nuclear.infrastructure-peis@hq.doe.gov. Let the DOE know what you think.

Running from his past

Liberal former governor Mike Lowry is running for statewide office again, counting on the support of loyal Democrats and his high name recognition to carry him to victory. But his candidacy raises an important question: What is the appropriate penalty for sexual harassment by high elected officials? Should they be unable to hold office again?

Lowry is hoping that voters won’t remember the scandal that drove him from office and left us with moderate Republican soccer dad Gary Locke. Lowry didn’t do much in office, but he at least kept rabid Republicans in Olympia somewhat in check during his term, an accomplishment Locke has dutifully avoided. But his alleged behavior as an office boss was appalling. Should we forgive him? I’m inclined to think not.

Lowry’s purported behavior was probably not exceptional—successful politicians are almost by definition narcissistic, power-hungry assholes, which is how sexual harassment starts. It’s not as though Lowry hasn’t paid a price; he did, after all, fail to run for a second term in the state’s most powerful office. But he isn’t facing up to his transgressions and hoping you’ll forgive him; he’s just hoping you’ve forgotten. And that’s a bad precedent. Next thing you know, Brock Adams will be back.