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OOPS! THAT PLUTONIUM WAS LEAKING AFTER ALL

Perhaps it's human nature to ignore unpleasant realities. Maybe that odd noise under the hood of the car will go away. Possibly your blurred vision is only temporary. But the better part of wisdom is to send the car to the garage and go to the doctor.

And then there's the U.S. Department of Energy. When this agency chooses to brush off unpleasant realities, it's no ping under the hood. As custodian of this country's everlasting nuclear waste, the department has the capacity to mess up big-time. And it has.

The department has been forced by the facts to admit it was wrong in downplaying, for many years, the significance of leaks of radioactive material from underground tanks at the nuclear reservation in Hanford, Wash.

It has been the department's contention that the leaked material would be trapped in the surrounding soil and not go far. Stop fretting, its spokesmen told critics. In fact, several whistle-blowing employees were penalized for making safety complaints.

But with nearly a million gallons of hot, hot waste leaking into the ground, and more expected to do the same, the department has now had to admit it was wrong. Seriously wrong. After once contending that no waste would seep to ground water for at least 10,000 years, the department now has to face the fact that some already has. Contamination in underground water is moving toward the Columbia River just a few miles away.

The department does not know how to clean up the leaks and doesn't even have a full grasp of how the leaked waste moves through the ground.

A report issued last week by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that the department's understanding of how waste moves through soil to underground water "is inadequate to make key decisions on how to clean up the wastes at the Hanford site in an environmentally sound and cost-effective manner."

It will be October at the earliest before the department even has a strategy for studying the problem.

Not surprisingly, lack of knowledge has led to errors. The New York Times reports that when surface soil became contaminated, someone decided to put clean gravel on top of the surface to protect workers. But the gravel worked to increase the flow of rainwater through the contaminated soil, getting radioactivity closer to the river.

It won't get better. Hanford has 177 underground tanks, including 149 of the type made with a single shell of steel, of which 68 have developed leaks. All the single-shelled tanks are likely to leak someday.

Quite rightly, some members of Congress are howling. Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, has warned for years about the dangers of these leaks. He questions whether the Department of Energy should remain in charge of the wastes. He has a point. At least at Hanford, the department has shown deep incompetence.

Washington, so used to thinking in the short term, needs to address the whole issue of nuclear waste, facing the multiple dangers with both a sense of urgency and a plan geared for the long haul. The head-in-the-sand approach used at Hanford won't do. Neither will bland assurances meant to get officials safely past the next election.

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