A policy shift buried within the federal government’s massive military spending bill could have ruinous consequences for radioactive cleanup in southeast Washington. The U.S. Senate must kill this proposal before it makes a historically bad situation worse. 

Hanford site cleanup has been a costly federal project since the 1980s, a duration now nearly as long as the four-plus decades the site produced plutonium for America’s nuclear arsenal. The Department of Energy provides about $2 billion annually for cleanup work that will be needed for years to come under the best-case plans. 

But those ambitions are now imperiled by the Senate. There, this year’s $731 billion National Defense Authorization Act bill was quietly amended to give the Department of Defense control over nuclear weapons, laboratories and cleanup that the Department of Energy has long held, and give the military branch budget-setting authority. 

This sets the stage for a potential disaster. 

It would enable the Pentagon to raid the deep funds needed for Hanford to boost nuclear arsenal spending instead. It also ends a long, and proper, tradition of giving civilian officials oversight over America’s nuclear resources. And it strips away accountability measures that have long served to keep the Hanford cleanup a top priority. The Senate’s Energy Committee would not be able to press the Department of Energy to keep Hanford a top priority if the military was effectively allowed to dictate Energy’s nuclear budget. 

“There’s no need for this change, and it’s not good governance, that’s for darn sure,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told this editorial board. 

As the people who live and work near Hanford know, the American interest in responsible nuclear management extends far beyond the military sphere. Benton County sustainable development manager Adam Fyall wrote in an email that the proposal is “particularly alarming” because environmental cleanup would be assessed against nuclear weapons objectives, with only military officials determining the outcome. 

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The need for civilian oversight is why the Department of Energy has held authority over the nuclear stockpile since the agency’s creation in 1977, taking over from the civilian Atomic Energy Commission created by President Harry Truman in 1946.

Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette wrote in a June 29 letter to Senate leaders asking that they eliminate the transfer, which would leave him and any future Energy Secretary “with responsibility for the (nuclear) program, while removing his or her ability to effectively manage it.” 

The Senate must come to its senses — rapidly. The amendment is already within the spending bill headed for a floor vote within days. Historically, military spending bills have passed by wide margins. This year’s version must be made right before it makes law.