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Hanford’s got enough problems without more radioactive waste

Published: Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 7:24 PM   The Oregonian Editorial Board

The Northwest’s problem with Hanford nuclear waste began nearly 60 years ago.

Plutonium was made in a reactor near the Columbia River, and it powered the nuclear bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945. In weapons work that lasted through the 1980s and would involve several reactors, radioactive materials were spilled onto the ground and into trenches and, over time, into tanks rotting underground. The 586-square-mile southeast Washington site is already tens of billions of taxpayer dollars into a near-impossible cleanup — the largest in the world — and has little chance of being completed anytime before 2050.

Now the Northwest has a new Hanford challenge.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees the cleanup, names Hanford as a candidate site for becoming the nation’s radioactive dumping ground — a permanent storage site not for spent nuclear fuel but for radioactive parts of decommissioned nuclear plants, mainly from Midwestern and Eastern states, as well as radioactive castoffs from medical and research processes nationwide.

This is a bad idea. It runs counter to everything that Oregon and Washington, Northwest tribes and health advocates have sought to achieve in taming a Hanford nuclear beast that menaces underground water, the Columbia River, and human and wildlife populations nearby. And the mission of our cleanup remains singular: Find the money and invent the technologies it will take to process and contain substances so radioactive they take thousands of years to lose potency.

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