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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Federal Court To Hanford Managers: Finish Cleanup With More Transparency

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Anna King
/
Northwest News Network
In this file photo from 2013 Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tours Hanford's troubled waste treatment plant.

A federal court ordered the U.S. Department of Energy Friday to step up its solutions and timeline to clean up tank waste at Hanford in southeast Washington.

Washington state wants the feds to empty 177 underground tanks full of radioactive sludge. The sludge is left over from the manufacture of plutonium for World War II and during the Cold War.

State watchdogs haven’t been happy with the pace of that cleanup by the federal government since before 2008. After 2008, the state and the feds reached a new court-drawn agreement. It included a fresh cleanup schedule that DOE helped create and said it could meet. Then the feds started missing those new deadlines and Washington state sued again in 2014. Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson of the Eastern Washington U.S. District Court wrote in Friday's order:

  • DOE hasn’t been transparent. Managers there haven't been up-front about its tank farm cleanup or technical problems with a massive factory called the Waste Treatment Plant that’s still under construction.
  • DOE managers have to get the first part of that plant up and treating waste by 2022. Peterson wrote there aren’t going to be federally-requested open timelines here.
  • Washington State is now granted expedited hearings. The state can get in court quickly should state managers claim the feds aren’t being forthcoming from this point on.

This all matters because more than 50 million gallons of radioactive sludge is sitting in World War II and Cold War era steel and concrete tanks near the Columbia River.
DOE released this statement:

DOE is reviewing the Court's Order and Consent Decree amendment. DOE remains committed to the successful treatment of tank waste at Hanford as soon as practicable.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.