February 11, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

For 60 years, the deadly material has rested at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the dangerous waste could remain in the ground for another 40 or more.

Two Oregonians who have been involved in urging the U.S. Department of Energy to clean up the radioactive and chemical products that are poisoning the ground, and perhaps the water, brought a message of urgency Monday night to an audience of 35 gathered at Hoke Center.

La Grandes Shelley Cimon and Ken Niles of the Oregon Office of Energy in Salem sounded a warning bell when they said the proposed U.S. budget contains less than one-third the amount needed per year to clean up leaking tanks, unsafe containers and contaminated ground.

Speaking to the Blue Mountain Forum, Niles said the proposed 2003 budget is not sufficient. We need about $1.8 billion each year to clean up a few tanks by 2018.

The federal budget is $300 million short to meet this timeline, Cimon said.

The Hanford reservation produced weapons-grade plutonium from 1943 until 1972, when the last tank was shut down. Much of the radioactive and chemical waste is stored in single-hulled tanks and in the past, much was dumped into ditches or on the ground. One hundred and seventy-seven underground storage tanks hold about 150 million gallons of waste.

There are some burial grounds; we dont really know what is where, Niles said.

Cleanup sounds easy, but to store the volatile materials in a solid state requires complex scientific procedures. The unstable material in single and double-walled tanks on the reservation can be altered into a glass-type stable material through the process of vitrification.

If everything goes as planned and nothing has gone as planned 10 percent of the waste will be vitrified by 2018, Niles said. By 2018, the oldest tank will be 70 years old.

Holding on to the funds that will allow cleanup is a yearly battle, Cimon said.

Niles agreed.

Every administration has to learn the lesson slowly, he said.

Not only do we battle the budget, now headquarters (the Department of Energy) wants to pull the regulations for the vitrification project, and start over, Cimon said.

As time passes and waste seeps into the groundwater and eventually into the Columbia River the cost of cleanup will increase, Cimon said.

We need a concentrated effort to persuade the government to sufficiently fund cleanup.

Congressional representatives from the states with nuclear weapons plants are constant supporters of federal funding for remediation, but Niles said that as smaller sites are cleaned up, continuing support for the massive effort at Hanford may wane.

The ongoing battle to persuade government leaders of the severity of Hanfords problem is one reason Cimon has decided to leave her position on the Oregon Hanford Waste Board. Her term ends in about a year. As a volunteer, she has been bringing the situation at the nuclear reservation to the publics attention for 17 years.

Im tired, she said.

Until the last 15 or 20 years, the public had virtually no voice in the operations at Hanford, and all plans and policies were made in secret.

We really need public participation, she said.

Although a massive amount of work remains, quite a bit has already been done, Niles said.

Theyve done most of the easy stuff, but theyve done some tough things, too, he said.

The U.S. Department of Energy is ultimately responsible for the condition at Hanford. A tri-party effort, involving the DOE, the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, negotiates the cleanup.

The Department of Energy has already been fined $25,000 a week for missing a deadline to begin vitrification, Niles said, but the state of Washington will waive the fine if the federal agency speeds up its work and meets its deadlines in the future.