Some Hanford cleanup along Columbia River to be delayed

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMay 25, 2012 

Some of the most complex and high radioactivity environmental cleanup work along the Columbia River at Hanford will be delayed.

Money is tight at Hanford and additional contamination has been found at other sites along the Columbia River that will require more work to clean up in the meantime.

Workers at Department of Energy contractor Washington Closure Hanford were told hours before the start of a four-day weekend Thursday of the change in plans for the 618-10 and 618-11 Burial Grounds and the high-level radioactive waste beneath the 324 Building.

"Because these areas hold some of the highest-hazard materials we've encountered at Hanford, this has caused us to pause and re-evaluate our sequencing of work over the next couple of years," said Carol Johnson, president of Washington Closure, in a memo to employees.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which is the regulator for the 618-10 and 618-11 Burial Grounds, is disappointed in the slowdown, said Dennis Faulk, EPA Hanford program manager.

"But there are not the resources to go around," he said.

"There are other slowdowns that we are going to see," he said. "There is just not the money to do all the work we want to do. It's the reality given the national budget limitations."

Washington Closure remains committed to DOE's 2015 Vision, which calls for most environmental cleanup along the Columbia River to be completed in 2015, said Mark McKenna, Washington Closure spokesman. Washington Closure's contract is planned to end in 2015 as cleanup near the river is completed.

But as Washington Closure has found new and more extensive contamination near former plutonium production reactors along the river, it will keep crews working there to clean up the additional contamination, Johnson said.

"This resequencing of work will allow completion of the increased work scope, maintain our work efficiencies and continue to maximize cleanup efforts to reduce the risks to the Columbia River," she said in the memo.

Near the former C Reactor, crews have dug up chromium-contaminated soil 85 feet deep down to ground water, but also discovered a plume of contamination extending from one of the dig sites that they also will have to excavate.

Near the former D and DR Reactors, workers also might have to dig down to ground water to excavate soil contaminated with chromium, which was added to reactors to prevent corrosion.

In addition, tritium has been discovered in a waste trench in the area near the K East and K West reactors.

"There are always unknowns," McKenna said. "We are going to take a deliberate approach to ensure the safety of workers."

Washington Closure had been expected to issue a request for bids this spring for a major project on the 324 Building, which sits over contaminated soil just north of Richland. Radioactive cesium and strontium leaked from a hot cell in the building to the soil below.

Radioactivity in the soil, which is about 1,000 feet from the Columbia River, has been measured at 8,900 rad per hour. Direct exposure for a few minutes would be fatal, according to Washington Closure.

The request for bids now is on hold, McKenna said.

It would have sought a subcontractor to design remotely operated equipment to be installed inside the hot cell where the leak occurred. Using the equipment, the subcontractor then would take out the hot cell's floor, dig up the contaminated soil beneath it and transfer the contaminated soil to nearby hot cells to be grouted in place.

Clean up of the building is required to be completed by the end of this year under the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement. However, DOE and the Washington State Department of Ecology, the regulator on the project, already have been in negotiations for new deadlines because of the leaked waste beneath the building, which was discovered in late 2010.

The legal deadline for completing work at the 618-10 and 618-11 Burial Grounds is not until 2018, although DOE officials have said they would like the work completed in 2015.

Some of the worst research waste generated at Hanford's 300 Area just north of Richland from 1954 to 1963 was trucked about six miles north of Richland to the 618-10 Burial Ground, a few hundred yards off of Hanford's main highway.

It included highly radioactive waste left from the destructive testing of fuel irradiated for the weapons production of plutonium at Hanford's reactors, particularly the fuel that failed. Some waste from that research was collected in containers ranging from the size of juice cans to buckets and dropped into pipes buried vertically. The pipe units extended as far as 15 feet underground.

The burial ground also includes 12 trenches, where retrieval of waste is under way.

Work will continue on the trench excavation, but work to remove waste from the 94 vertical pipe units will be delayed. Engineering on some of the equipment needed for the vertical pipe unit cleanup was about 60 percent complete earlier this year and some ground work to prepare for removal could have started in the fall.

Work at the 618-11 Burial Ground, which was used for research waste from 1962 through 1967, also is on hold. The burial ground adjoins the parking lot at the Columbia Generating Station, Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant on leased land at Hanford. Some infrastructure work to prepare for excavation has been done.

The 618-11 Burial Ground has three trenches, 50 vertical pipe units and four caissons, which are buried containers 8 feet in diameter and 10 feet long with slanted pipes to drop waste down.

Washington Closure a year ago announced plans to start ramping down employment in the fiscal year that began in October 2011 as it works toward completion of its contract in September 2015. So far it has reduced its work force by about 50 employees. It has about 1,100 workers now, including 300 workers for subcontractors.

"We are working through various scenarios and potential impacts to the project and will share more information as the process moves forward," Johnson told employees in the memo.

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