The Hanford nuclear reservation in southeast Washington presents no shortage of work toward cleaning up the site, work that is expected to continue for decades, but managers say they will miss 23 deadlines this year because budgeted funds were insufficient
That's one reason senators whose districts include Department of Energy sites like Hanford are pushing for stimulus money to rejuvenate local economies with cleanup work and, they hope, provide freshly-scrubbed land for industrial development.
"This is exactly the kind of thing a stimulus package should be composed of," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Spending more and completing cleanups faster would enable the government to decrease the "footprint" or overall size of each site, releasing more property for development, according to an Energy Department proposal for the stimulus package.
The 586-square-mile Hanford reservation is one of dozens of sites created nationwide to build the first atomic bombs during World War II and nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Other major sites are in Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Idaho and other states.
Cleanup at the Idaho National Laboratory, unlike many other sites, is generally on schedule and in some areas ahead of schedule. Crapo said he doesn't generally support stimulus packages, and he's not certain he'll support the bill when it goes to a Senate vote, but he still signed the letter seeking more nuclear cleanup funds.
"If we had an entire stimulus package that had these kinds of worthy projects in it, it would be a lot easier to justify a yes vote," Crapo said.
Others signing the letter include Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also supports boosting cleanup spending nationally by $6 billion.
The federal government retains ownership of the properties, most of them highly contaminated and often near major waterways, threatening public health and the environment. Since the mid-1990s, the Energy Department has spent $7.3 billion to $5.5 billion on environmental cleanup nationally each year.
The longer the cleanup drags on, the more technically challenging and expensive it gets, said Susan Gordon, director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability in Washington D.C.
"If we're supposed to do big public works projects, environmental cleanup seems to me would fit right into that," she said. "All of the sites are Superfund sites, so they're supposed to be cleaned up."
Most also are governed under cleanup compacts with regulators, generally either the Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies or both, but many deadlines are being missed.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire sued the federal government last month for failing to meet deadlines in the Hanford compact.
At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in northern California, EPA fined the Energy Department $105,000 for failing to clean up groundwater contaminated by hazardous chemicals, plus $10,000 a week until the department resumes the effort.
"In most cases, these violations result from a lack of adequate funding, causing milestones to be missed, cleanup schedules to be delayed and commitments to local communities, regulators and states to fall by the wayside," several senators wrote in a letter to leaders on the appropriations committee.
A House stimulus bill released last week includes $500 million for such cleanup. Senators in states with significant cleanup responsibilities are pushing for $6 billion over four years, $1.5 billion a year.
Hanford, where overall cleanup costs are expected to top $50 billion, gets about $2 billion of the Energy Department's total cleanup budget annually.
Some work could be accelerated with additional money, said David Brockman, manager of the agency's Richland operations office, which oversees half of the Hanford cleanup. He cited work to pump-and-treat contaminated groundwater, cleanup of two aging pools that once contained spent nuclear fuel and efforts to retrieve highly radioactive waste from the site's central plateau.
Cleanup of the plateau, which holds some of the most dangerous waste, has slowed because it is farther from Columbia River, the principal waterway in the Pacific Northwest.
"We could put more money to really good work," Brockman said. "We're ready to roll. We'd just have to hire the people."