DOE continues to shrink Hanford's footprint

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldNovember 25, 2012 

The Department of Energy has reduced the 586 square miles of Hanford requiring environmental cleanup to 161 square miles.

In three more years, the land requiring cleanup could be little more than the 75 square miles at Hanford's center as DOE works to complete cleanup outlined in its 2015 Vision, an ambitious plan for work to be completed by the end of 2015.

It's been clear since at least summer that DOE won't be able to finish all the work in the plan announced about five years ago. But DOE says it is on track to come close.

Five years ago, DOE wanted to break out a scope of work that could be completed in the near term to allow the public to see tangible progress in Hanford environmental cleanup, even though completion of all cleanup will stretch out for decades to come.

Key portions of the 2015 Vision included cleaning up 210 square miles of contaminated land along the Columbia River, treating contaminated ground water closest to the river and demolishing the high-risk, highly contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant.

The plan would go after items of immediate risk, particularly to the Columbia River, while reducing the overhead costs of continuing work across hundreds of square miles. It also would clean up debris on land that never had been used for production, including what's now the Hanford Reach National Monument and previously was a security buffer around the site.

"The vision has served the site well, providing tangible evidence of work," said Matt McCormick, manager of the Hanford DOE Richland Operations Office, in a Herald interview.

But as with most Hanford cleanup projects, unexpected conditions and contamination have been found, increasing the amount of work needed to complete the 2015 Vision.

Near C Reactor, one of the reactors along the river used for weapons-plutonium production, chromium contamination has been more extensive than expected. Contaminated soil has had to be dug up down to ground water, about 85 feet deep. Chromium was added to reactor cooling water to prevent corrosion.

Additional areas of contaminated soil have been found in nearly every cleanup project along the river, adding 170 more waste sites to the work to complete the 2015 Vision. Most challenging is a spill of highly radioactive strontium and cesium found beneath the 324 Building, which housed large hot cells for research with radioactive materials.

The increased contamination has added to the cost of cleanup. Just the additional chromium contamination near reactors along the Columbia River is costing $107 million to clean up.

Recovery Act money gave cleanup a boost under the 2015 Vision for a couple of years. But in the fiscal year just ended, the available budget of $1.04 billion was $20 million below what DOE had planned to keep the 2015 Vision on track, McCormick said.

Money for the work in fiscal 2013 and the next two years also may fall short, he said.

Significant progress has been made toward completing the 2015 Vision. That includes demolishing 357 of 458 buildings or facilities, cleanup of 618 of 995 soil waste sites and getting the last of the irradiated fuel out of storage in the K West Basin.

But McCormick sees five major challenges ahead in completing all the planned work in the 2015 Vision.

With the money available so far this year for the K Basins -- the Department of Energy is being funded under a continuing resolution at least until spring after Congress failed to approve a budget -- DOE will not be able to order all the transportation casks, pumps and piping needed to be manufactured to nuclear quality standards to remove radioactive sludge from the basins.

That, along with technical issues, might not allow the basin attached to the K West Reactor to be emptied of sludge by 2015.

DOE has planned to have the K East Reactor cocooned within three years. Production reactors other than historic B Reactor are being cocooned, or torn down to little more than their radioactive cores, reroofed and sealed up to let radioactivity decay to more manageable levels during 75 years.

However, the basin attached to the K East Reactor leaked contaminated water into the soil in the past, and more time might be needed to assess and deal with that contamination. As a result, DOE is considering cocooning the K East and K West reactors at the same time after 2015.

It could be less expensive to cocoon both reactors at the same time, McCormick said.

Tearing down the Plutonium Finishing Plant to concrete slabs on the ground also could take additional time, with work possibly being completed in 2016, McCormick said. It's the highest risk facility at Hanford, he said.

High levels of plutonium have been found held up in processing equipment and piping in the building, making work to remove the equipment safely time consuming. It also generates more plutonium-contaminated waste that must be sent to a New Mexico repository, which is more expensive than disposing of waste in a lined landfill at Hanford.

However, DOE originally had planned to get the plant torn down to concrete slabs on the ground at a cost of $2.2 billion by 2019. McCormick expects to finish three years ahead of that schedule and at $900 million less than projected. Part of that savings come from the high overhead costs of maintaining the Plutonium Finishing Plant complex in a safe condition.

At the 300 Area just north of Richland along the Columbia River, DOE expects to have 185 of 186 buildings demolished by 2015. The lone unused building to be torn down is the 324 Building, which had been planned to be torn down in 2013 before the cesium and strontium spill was discovered beneath it.

"It's a job we have to do right," McCormick said.

Radioactivity has been measured at 8,900 rad per hour in the soil. Direct exposure for a few minutes would be fatal, according to DOE contractor Washington Closure Hanford.

The final project included in the 2015 Vision not expected to be completed by 2015 is the notorious 618-11 Burial Ground just outside the parking lot of Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant.

Although DOE once planned to clean up the 618-10 and 618-11 Burial Grounds at the same time, it now plans to finish 618-10 first to gain experience on how to exhume the waste without spreading contamination near Energy Northwest, McCormick said. Containers of highly radioactive waste from research activities were dropped into vertically buried pipes and caissons at the two burial grounds.

Washington Closure now holds the contract to perform cleanup along the Columbia River, and the contract was expected to end with the completion of cleanup there in 2015. Although the contract has not been extended, McCormick called the contractor one of the best performers based on schedule, cost and safety in DOE's nationwide environmental management complex.

"I don't see anyone as well suited to finish river corridor work as Washington Closure," he said.

When all the work under the 2015 Vision is completed, plenty of tough projects will remain.

Then the focus will switch to projects in the heart of Hanford, where irradiated fuel was chemically processed to remove plutonium. Work will continue there under the DOE Office of River Protection to empty radioactive waste from leak-prone tanks and to build the vitrification plant to treat the waste for disposal.

But the office that McCormick leads, the DOE Richland Operations Office, will tackle the rest of the work in the center of Hanford.

All of the massive processing facilities for the fuel still stand in central Hanford, and most of them are extensively contaminated. In addition, almost 2,000 containers of radioactive cesium and strontium are stored underwater in central Hanford and must be moved to dry storage.

Plutonium-contaminated waste was temporarily buried in central Hanford until it could be dug up and sent to a national repository in New Mexico.

And just like near the Columbia River, buildings must be torn down and contaminated soil dug up or treated to protect the groundwater.

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