If you've got a problem with radioactive waste, you could clean it up, a costly and onerous process, or you could just change the definition of it. Guess which one the Trump administration has decided to do?
This week, the Department of Energy announced that it is revising the classification of radioactive waste at Hanford, the decommissioned nuclear bomb-making site in Benton County, Washington. This isn't because Hanford has actually been cleaned up or anything like that. Nope! It's still considered by many to be The Most Toxic Place in America, which is pretty damn impressive considering the toxic dump in the White House.
In a statement Wednesday, the DOE said that by reclassifying waste at Hanford, as well as two sites in South Carolina and Idaho, they will have more flexibility in how some of that waste is disposed of. There are currently 56 million gallons of radioactive waste and other hazardous chemicals stored in underground tanks at Hanford, and all that waste has been considered "high level," meaning that it requires strict standards for disposal. That, however, will change under the DOE's new rule.
Environmentalists and Washington state leaders, however, are not pleased. In a joint statement, Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson said, "The Trump Administration is showing disdain and disregard for state authority with these actions. Washington will not be sidelined in our efforts to clean up Hanford and protect the Columbia River and the health and safety of our state and our people.
“By taking this action, the administration seeks to cut out state input and move towards disposal options of their choosing, including those already deemed to be unsafe by their own assessments and in violation of the existing legally binding agreement. We will consider all options to stop this reckless and dangerous action.”
Hanford has been a radioactive thorn in America's side for decades. In a brilliant Vanity Fair article from 2018, journalist Michael Lewis (who also has a fantastic new podcast on the impacts of deregulation that you should all listen to immediately), wrote of the decades-long Hanford cleanup:
The Department of Energy wires 10 percent of its annual budget, or $3 billion a year, into this tiny place and intends to do so until the radioactive mess is cleaned up. And even though what is now called the Tri-Cities area is well populated and amazingly prosperous—yachts on the river, $300 bottles of wine in the bistros—the absolute worst thing that could happen to it is probably not a nuclear accident. The worst thing that could happen is that the federal government loses interest in it and slashes the D.O.E.’s budget—as President Trump has proposed to do. And yet Trump won the county in which Hanford resides by 25 points.
This change, Richland Mayor Bob Thompson, told the Tri-City Herald, could save the DOE $40 billion. The question is, at what cost?