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Nuclear Waste Program

Nuclear Waste Program’s Alex Smith takes stock on her year in transition

In April 2016, Alex Smith took over as manager of the Nuclear Waste Program. She had been a lawyer at the Port of Seattle and also served in a number of other capacities both private and public, including as an assistant attorney general responsible for Ecology’s hazardous waste and toxics reduction program. She recently took time to reflect on her year at the helm, as well as the status of the cleanup at Hanford.

By Alex Smith, Nuclear Waste Program Manager

Transitions can be daunting for all involved. In my case, I knew I had a lot to live up to, coming in to fill the very big shoes of the retiring Ecology Nuclear Waste Program Manager Jane Hedges.

But transitions can also be a time for new directions and renewed commitments. I was lucky to assume program management at a time of major changes on the Hanford Site north of Richland. For example, right before I joined Ecology, litigation between the state and the Department of Energy over cleanup milestones ended.

The end of that litigation freed the parties to talk with one another again, without legal constraints. This has allowed me to dive in feet first to build relationships with the various players and stakeholders involved in the complex issues surrounding Hanford cleanup.

Here are some of my observations after my year on the job at Ecology.

Hanford is different

In many ways, Hanford is a world unto itself, with a complex network of governmental entities, contractors, communities, workers and stakeholders all part of the complicated work of cleaning up the Hanford Site. Coming from prior jobs where large Superfund cleanup sites were much smaller and less contaminated (comparatively speaking), Hanford is a whole new kind of complexity – but what a fascinating challenge!

Everyone has an opinion

One of the great things about Hanford – people care very deeply about it and ensuring that the cleanup is successful. However, opinions vary widely on the details of how and when cleanup activities take place. A lot of the tough but important – and, yes, challenging – work at Hanford is working through these differences.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Although some of the details change over time, a lot of the issues I have faced are the same (or darn similar to) issues that have been faced before, and will be faced again, at the site. Issues like constrained federal budgets for cleanup work, the need to finish the high-level waste vitrification facility and maintain the budget for it, the need to retrieve waste from the tank farms before the tanks degrade much further, etc. The good news is that many very smart people successfully worked through these issues before, and there are a lot of equally talented, dedicated people working today to resolve current challenges.

Some incredibly impressive work has been done at Hanford

This was one of the best revelations. I have had my metaphorical socks knocked off seeing some of the incredible work that’s been done. River corridor cleanup to protect the Columbia River. The 200 West Groundwater Pump and Treat System that can treat over 100 million gallons of groundwater per month, removing nine different contaminants. The incredible planning and work that has allowed demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant to begin. I look forward to many future successes at the site.

It is a lot colder, snowier and icier here than I expected

I have been told repeatedly that this winter is an anomaly, which I am choosing to believe! I have gotten more use out of my snow boots and snow shovel here in the Tri-Cities than I ever did living in Olympia. Still – I, along with everyone I know, am looking forward to summer.

There are great people doing great work at Hanford

I have been so impressed with the smart and dedicated people working on the Hanford cleanup, at all levels. I’m happy to be a part of this Hanford community and hope to add value to the cleanup efforts. I’ll do all I can to help ensure that we sustain meaningful cleanup progress at the site.

See more Hanford news.