Japanese cleanup officials see how Hanford does it

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 18, 2013 

On opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, similar work to clean up radioactive contamination is planned to be carried out during the next 40 years.

Thursday, officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that operated the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear reactors, toured Hanford to see how work is being done there to clean up contamination from the past production of plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

The Tokyo company, or TEPCO, is responsible for decommissioning and cleanup after a magnitude-9 earthquake was followed by a tsunami that caused a full meltdown at three reactors in 2011.

"We have extensive experience in environmental cleanup," said Steve Schneider, director of the Office of Tank Waste Management for the Department of Energy. "They want to come here to learn from the U.S. experience."

TEPCO has a contract with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland and the Savannah River National Laboratory to see how expertise developed at Hanford and other Department of Energy nuclear weapons cleanup sites could apply to cleanup of the Fukushima site.

Fukushima and Hanford have contaminated soil and groundwater. They have damaged irradiated nuclear fuel. And they have radioactive debris that requires disposal.

The two sites also have differences, but the purpose of the projects remains the same, said Masumi Ishikawa, general manager of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Department for TEPCO, speaking through an interpreter.

Workers at both have the goal of cleaning up an entire site, he said. "There is a lot we can learn."

He is impressed with Hanford's on-site disposal options for radioactive waste after seeing the 107-acre Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, the lined landfill for low-level radioactive and chemical waste in central Hanford, he said.

"That would be very difficult at Fukushima," he said.

While Hanford covers 586 square miles, the Fukushima site stretches only a few miles along the coast and less than that inland.

That limits where they can store large amounts of debris from the nuclear accident and tsunami, said Wayne Johnson, a division director within the Energy and Environmental Directorate at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

At Hanford's new 200 West Pump and Treat plant, Hanford's largest and most sophisticated plant for cleaning contaminated groundwater, the TEPCO visitors heard about the different systems to strip radioactive and organic chemical pollutants out of water pumped out of the ground.

Clean water then is injected back into the ground on two sides of the plume of contaminated water, helping to keep contamination from spreading.

"We're using clean water to control the plume," said Bill Barrett of CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co.

Fukushima might have a more daunting challenge. Hanford is in the desert, but Fukushima is in a mountainous area close to the ocean, Ishikawa said.

Groundwater is close to the surface there, and before the 2011 disaster, it had a pumping program to make sure basements had no leaks.

Information about how Hanford has handled irradiated fuel left at the end of the Cold War to corrode might be particularly valuable to TEPCO, Ishikawa said.

"We are just starting cleanup," Ishikawa said. "I think we have a lot to learn from K Basins."

Hanford has cleaned, dried and packaged 2,300 tons of degraded irradiated fuel left for decades in the K East and K West Reactor cooling basins.

PNNL will have a feasibility study completed this spring that looks at how expertise and experience at DOE sites could be applied to Fukushima challenges, Johnson said. TEPCO officials will be at PNNL today to discuss progress on that work.

As valuable as technical information is, TEPCO also is interested in how Hanford has learned to conduct cleanup and developed processes, Ishikawa said. As TEPCO begins cleanup, it wants to learn from what Hanford has learned, Ishikawa said.

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