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Our view: Hanford’s waste spread under a cloak of secrecy

Government secrecy sometimes shields incompetence — in Hanford’s case, disastrously

Published on September 5, 2017 12:01AM


Citadel of Secrets is one way of describing Washington, D.C. The dirty little secret about Washington’s secrets is that we all might be better off with fewer of them.

Writing Aug. 27 in The New York Times Magazine, Beverly Gage quotes the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who believed that it is easier to keep secrets when you have fewer of them.

The biggest shroud of secrecy in the Pacific Northwest lies over the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Because of its extraordinary moment of creation, during World War II, and its mission — to develop material for the unproven concept of an atomic bomb — Hanford’s very existence was a huge secret in the desert of southeast Washington state.

There is link between secrecy and the incompetence it hides. Of our government’s secrecy cult, Gage writes that, “This secrecy was a useful tool, but it became a crutch too — a way for federal employees to cover up mistakes or to inflate their own importance.”

As the dark side of nuclear secrecy, Exhibit A is Chernobyl, the Soviet nuclear power plant, which in 1986 had the most disastrous accident in history. The Chernobyl reactor was an old Russian design, without safety features and deep backup. Its accident created a large disaster zone. Months later, The New York Times Magazine published a devastating gallery of photos from that zone.

Like Chernobyl, Hanford’s N-Reactor lacked a backup, steel and concrete containment system. It was subsequently shut down.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hanford ceased manufacturing plutonium. That was also the point when Hanford’s veil of secrecy was lifted. Mark Heater of Hanford’s media relations office confirms that in February 1986, the Department of Energy released 19,000 pages of documents relating to Hanford.

In that decade, our region became aware that Hanford was a vast and leaking dump of hazardous nuclear waste. One of those underground waste plumes was headed toward the Columbia River.

It would be comforting to say that Hanford is a much more open secret these days. But Anna King cautions otherwise. As the Richland-based correspondent of the Northwest News Network, no journalist is consistently closer to Hanford than King. She says: “I don’t know if the shroud of secrecy has come off Hanford. Their whole mission is to not let out information.”

An astounding amount of money has been spent on cleaning up and containing Hanford’s poorly stored waste. It is the drawback of nuclear energy writ large. What does a nation do with the waste? Behind a wall of secrecy, the scientists and technicians who ran Hanford for decades gave us a disastrous answer to that question.



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