Even critics of the cleanup admit that the operators can't simply turn their backs on the waste; some of it is in tanks that could blow up, or it could dribble into water supplies. Another concern is Hanford's plutonium, a material so deadly it can kill and cause disease even in minute doses. The DOE estimates that Hanford has 11 metric tons of the stuff. Much of it is locked in spent fuel, but about 3.8 metric tons is pure enough to be a threat if stolen by terrorists. Only a few kilograms are needed to make a bomb.

In addition, nobody knows how much plutonium was poured into the ground over the years. For decades, plutonium-laced waste was dumped into pits; scientists thought it fused with the soil and didn't move. But they were wrong. This is one reason Hanford's groundwater will need perpetual monitoring.

A congressional report released earlier this month concludes that some of the cleanup ideas not only are costly but seem dumb. For example, officials propose to separately drag eight 16,000-ton reactor cores, now nestled in buildings along the river, to a plateau miles away to be buried. But the only vehicle capable of moving such monster loads is two space-shuttle movers tied together; and they would require a special road. The price tag: more than $500 million. Even then, radioactive isotopes inside the cores might eventually leak into the ground later.

DOE officials put such a removal far in the future. ``That's pretty far down our priority list,'' says Mr. Wagoner, the Hanford manager. As for the possibility of radioactivity seeping into the ground, he says the idea is to get the reactor cores away from the river so that the contamination can't spread so easily into the water.

``The trouble is, you have this massive cleanup being driven by questions for which we still don't have the right answers,'' says Steven Blush, the former DOE official who co-wrote the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's report. ``In a situation like this, it's impossible not to waste money.''

Even doing nothing devours money. One of Hanford's plutonium-laced processing plants costs $34 million a year just to maintain and watch over. ``These aren't places where you can switch off the lights and leave,'' says Thomas Carpenter, the Seattle-based representative of the Government Accountability Project, which is monitoring the cleanup.

Another money pit sits under 16 feet of water inside two windowless concrete hulks near the Columbia's banks. Known as the ``K Basins,'' the huge pools hold more than 100,000 rotting fuel slugs _ the long rods used inside reactors.

The slugs were supposed to stay here a few months before going to a nearby facility for reprocessing, but the end of the Cold War stalled them in these tanks. ``We don't have much time to get them out of here,'' says Victor Hoefer, a Hanford engineer as he leads the way across a metal grill suspended above one tank. Orange and purple signs with radioactivity symbols and the words ``Surface Contamination'' dot walls and pipes. As the fuel corrodes, it releases plutonium, uranium and strontium-90 into the water. Moreover, the basins are leaking, and a deadly slime is forming in the bottoms of the tanks.

Doing nothing to clean up the K Basins costs $40 million a year, spent on things such as keeping the antique ventilation system pumping and the salaries of people trying to patch the leaks. Hanford officials have a grim term for this: the ``mortgage.'' An actual cleanup will cost another $100 million, according to Westinghouse. And that will get the rods and slime only into dry containers in an ``interim storage'' building away from the river.

To environmentalists, all this is just a tab for the Cold War, but they gripe that while weapons were long politically popular, the cleanup isn't. ``As soon as something becomes an environmental problem and not a defense program, it's like a shadow falls over it,'' says Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, a Seattle group monitoring Hanford. He deplores the cutbacks because most of the money is coming out of actual cleanup work; cutting the fat remains elusive. Contractors are still charging hefty overhead, he says, including multimillion-dollar legal bills stemming from the cleanup.

Many observers also argue that the cuts will push future costs higher because they are just delaying work that must be done anyway. Indeed, Hanford's cleanup is dictated by a legal agreement worked out among the DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Washington. But now the DOE is trying to renegotiate it to allow for the less-extensive cleanup that it envisions.

However, even environmentalists concede that fighting for Hanford's funding is awkward when so much is wasted. ``I have this dilemma when I go to lobby on Capitol Hill,'' says Todd Martin, another local activist. ``Do I say, `You've got to spend this money,' when I know they're throwing a lot of it down a rat hole?''