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Friday, June 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM



Seeping toward disaster

Every moment of every day, radioactive waste from leaking tanks at the Hanford nuclear reservation is percolating through groundwater toward the Columbia River. Containing this ecological assault has new urgency as budgetary and bureaucratic disasters continue above ground.

A new, eye-popping cost estimate from the federal Department of Energy is more bad news. Construction of a key waste-treatment plant has soared to $11.5 billion from a 2000 price tag of $4.3 billion. Everyone suspects these DOE figures are written in pencil, too, but the truly depressing piece of the announcement was an extended completion date: 2019. Eight years were tacked onto the deadline previously agreed to by the federal government and the state of Washington.

The goal is to build a treatment plant that converts millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste into glass logs for long-term storage.

Creation of this vitrification process has been slowed by technological challenges, seismic precautions, dithering contractors, anemic federal oversight of a constantly changing parade of contractors and a host of DOE secretaries and members of Congress all horrified by the expense.

The only process not caught up in delay is the movement of radioactive waste toward the Columbia River. Think one million people, 42 cities and towns and a substantial piece of the state's economy and livelihood downstream.

The state Department of Ecology is weighing its options, which include a nasty, bruising lawsuit to enforce the terms of the federal-state settlement for cleanup. A litany of contractor screw-ups, federal obliviousness and parsimony boost the state's chances.

Another option is accepting the reality of the new cost estimates and timetable and amending the agreement to recognize current circumstances. Trouble is, the ripple effect is huge and sets back other phases of the cleanup.

A third option, a real bow to reality, would acknowledge the revised deadline, but with a simultaneous and credible effort to halt the plume heading toward the Columbia.

Legal fisticuffs will not prevent an ecological disaster trickling toward the river. Stopping it would be refreshingly productive.

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