Thursday, June 15, 2017 | 10:05 a.m.
RICHLAND, Wash. — Future accidental radiation releases at the largest U.S. site of waste from nuclear weapons production are likely following back-to-back emergency evacuations of workers in May and June because aging infrastructure is breaking down, the top Energy Department official at the site told The Associated Press.
Adding to the likelihood of more nuclear mishaps at the sprawling Hanford Nuclear Reservation is inadequate government funding to quickly clean up the millions of gallons of toxic nuclear waste at the site, said Doug Shoop, who runs the department’s operations office at Hanford.
Hanford has an annual budget of $2.3 billion for cleanup but Shoop said it will cost at least $100 billion to clean up the highly toxic radioactive and chemical wastes on the 580-square mile (1,502 square kilometer) site which produced up to 70 percent of the plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal since it was established in World War II.
“The infrastructure is not going to last long enough for the cleanup,” Shoop said in an interview this week. “It will be another 50 years before it is all demolished.”
Shoop made the comments after hundreds of Hanford workers were evacuated May 9 when the roof of a 1950s rail tunnel storing a lethal mix of waste from plutonium production collapsed. Tests show no radiation was released.
Then, on June 8, demolition work at a 1940s plutonium plant sent 350 workers seeking cover inside. Radiation was emitted but not deemed at a level harmful to people.
More money would lead to a faster cleanup, Shoop said. But President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for next year includes a $120 million cut for Hanford.
The official deadline for cleaning up Hanford is 2060, but Shoop said so much infrastructure at the site is deteriorating that “some facilities are not going to withstand that time.”
The site’s cleanup began in 1989 and critics have accused regulators of allowing the U.S. government to delay cleanup deadlines by decades, putting lives and the environment at risk.
“Every year that we don’t have an earthquake … has been just luck,” said Gerry Pollet, a Washington state legislator who represents a liberal Seattle district, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from Hanford.