Sen. Murray Keeps Hanford Nuclear Site Safe From Budget Cuts

Carolyn Kaster/AP

While Energy is facing across-the-board cuts, Murray wants to keep her home state's facility funded.

She may not attend Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for Ernest Moniz, President Obama’s nominee for Energy secretary, but you can bet Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will make sure the department has all the money it needs to keep the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in her home state running safely.

That’s not an easy task when Energy, along with most other government agencies, is facing across-the-board sequester cuts and intense scrutiny over how Washington spends taxpayers’ dollars. The positions Murray holds on the Senate Democratic leadership team and key committees empower her to ensure that funding for the nuclear-waste site—a whopping $2 billion a year—remains intact.

The Hanford site, which takes up nearly 600 square miles along the banks of the Columbia River in south-central Washington, produced plutonium for nuclear weapons during World War II and the Cold War, including the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. Today, the site holds 56 million of gallons of radioactive waste from those weapons in underground tanks fraught with problems, including leaks into surrounding soil. It’s considered the most contaminated radioactive site in North America.

In addition to her role on the Democratic leadership team and her chairmanship of the Budget Committee, Murray is also the second-most senior Democrat on the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees Energy's budget.

“Senator Murray has an important role in leadership, and she’s got a key facility in her state and she sits on the key subcommittee. You add all these pieces together and she has a major role to play,” said Dan Reicher, who worked on Hanford issues when he was chief of staff to President Clinton’s first Energy secretary, Hazel O’Leary, in the 1990s.

From her perch atop the Budget Committee, Murray also made sure her party’s first budget blueprint in four years included language supporting funding for nuclear-waste sites. She didn’t mention the name Hanford, but the language included implied as much.

“The environmental effects have spread to the surrounding soil and groundwater, which must be remediated,” the Democratic budget proposal states. The plan won’t become law, but it has symbolic importance in the wake of its Senate passage last month, and it could be a sign of what Obama includes in his budget proposal due out Wednesday.

In addition to securing $2 billion in annual funding for Hanford, Murray was also instrumental in getting an additional $2 billion included in the $800 billion economic stimulus that Obama signed into law in February 2009.

The amount of money the government pours into Hanford every year is a sign of its importance. Hanford’s $2 billion budget is just $300 million less than the entire FY 2013 budget proposal for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The government is trying to protect Hanford as much as possible from sequestration. About 9,000 people work at the site.

This article appeared in the Tuesday, April 9, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.