Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
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.

Gregoire’s Relationship With Hanford Long And Complex

When Governor Chris Gregoire leaves office in January, she’ll take with her nearly a quarter-century’s worth of expertise on one of the most contaminated places on earth. Cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation has been one of her top priorities. Before Gregoire was governor, she worked on Hanford issues as the state’s attorney general and before that as ecology director.

Gregoire knows cleaning up Hanford is no easy task. She’s been involved longer than many of the top federal site managers. And despite all of the problems and complexities she’s still optimistic.

“Frankly, if we can do what we did in preparation for the bomb in World War II we can solve this problem,” she says.

The process of making plutonium during WWII and the Cold War left 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge at Hanford. It’s stored in leaking tanks near the Columbia River. The government is building a $12 billion massive factory here in the desert to treat that waste. But concerns over the plant’s design have stalled some parts of its construction.

Gregoire says she’s disappointed she didn’t see the plant’s completion during her time as governor. She says she was especially befuddled by a two-year work stoppage that started in 2006. That happened after it became clear the plant wasn’t designed with the possibility of a large-scale earthquake in mind.

“Probably the biggest disappointment is when we stop and say, ‘What happens if we have an earthquake?’ Really? We didn’t think about that before?" Gregoire says. "I know it’s a remote chance, but you have to have thought about that before. To me, that’s fairly rudimentary. So I’m very disappointed that Energy didn’t dot ‘I’s and cross ‘t’s that are so basic as that.”

Now, there are fresh issues with the plant. Like corrosion and erosion in the pipes, and the possibility of flammable gas building up inside mixing vessels.

Tom Carpenter with Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge says he wishes Gregoire would have been more aggressive with state oversight. But Gregoire says she’s been partnering with U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, environmental agencies and contractors to try move ahead.

“We’re all working together now, trying to solve some of the issues that we’ve got over there knowing full well that the more that can agree the better off we are to get this thing back on track …”

Back on track still means Washington's radioactive waste won't be cleaned up for several decades. By that time, Gregiore will have long been written into the history books.

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.