Friday, February 15, 2013

Nuclear Race Isn't Over in Hanford

Remember last fall, after the presidential elections, when Tea Partiers got all lathered up over reports that the Obama administration was churning out 68 new federal regulations per day?

I took the liberty of checking on a day's worth of those "regulations," and learned that yes, each day, dozens of events matriculate through our federal government's many bureaucratic calendars, but they're not all regulations.  In fact, some of them are pretty benign housekeeping details that we'd expect our government to perform on our behalf.

Well, most were benign.  One of them had to do with ventilating gas from storage tanks holding nuclear wastes such as plutonium, uranium, and radioactive iodine in Hanford, Washington.  Not exactly something I'd expect Tea Partiers to get all upset about our government needing to do, right?

Well, as it turns out, it's not just gas that's building up in the aging underground tanks on this "tank farm" in Washington state.  One of the facility's 177 tanks has begun to leak its liquid into the ground, and while radiation levels above ground haven't detected any problems - yet, administrators at the site don't think waiting around until radiation levels do rise is wise.

It's not even like this leak is the first leak in Hanford's history.  Apparently, depending on the account you read, Hanford is practically a sieve of radioactive materials just waiting to either sink into the earth, or blow the northwestern corner of the United States to Kingdom Come.  Leaks are nothing new, nor are windborne radioactive pollutants and groundwater contamination.  In fact,within 12 years, underground contamination may reach the nearby Columbia River, which could pose an unprecedented ecological crisis for the region. 

Our government is working on a $12.3 billion project to convert the waste being stored at Hanford into  safer, more stable consistencies that can be more easily controlled throughout chemical half-lives that will outlive many human generations to come.  In the meantime, however, both Washington state and federal budgets continue to tinker with the amount of taxdollars being committed to this project, since an imminent catastrophe is still over a decade away - an eternity in political time. 

So, what does this mean for you and me?

As we once again look down the long barrel of debt ceiling limits, sequestration, raising taxes, and spending caps, we need to remember that, for a variety of reasons - including winning wars and securing our dominance in the nuclear arms race - our country has racked up some mammoth obligations and liabilities that, like the Hanford tanks underground, we don't see every day, but are still demanding big chunks of our nation's treasury.

For we conservatives who like to talk about paying our bills and settling our debts, sites like Hanford and the responsibilities we still have for them remind us that our government is even bigger than we often disparage it as being.  And far more complex.  And the holder of dangerous secrets and, yes, liquids.

Let's let that seep into our gray matter and sober up our judgment.

As Hanford bears witness, we really haven't won the nuclear arms race yet, have we?

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