HANFORD — Two locomotives and two cask railcars that once hauled irradiated fuel across Hanford will be making a final trip in the next few months.
While 12 other railcars parked in central Hanford are destined for a landfill, the locomotives and two cars will be going to historic B Reactor for display.
"It's a big win for the preservation effort at the site and a really big win for the public," said Colleen French, DOE Hanford government affairs program manager.
Railroad tracks already have been removed at B Reactor, but they will be put down again for the display.
B Reactor was the nation's first full-scale production reactor, ushering in the Atomic Age. It was built in 13 months during World War II as the nation raced to develop the technology for an atom bomb.
The reactor produced plutonium for the first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert, the Trinity Test, and produced plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end World War II.
To get the reactor's irradiated fuel to central Hanford -- where chemical processing dissolved the fuel and removed the plutonium -- a rail system was used. Locomotives pulled cars with heavily shielded casks to hold the highly radioactive fuel.
The casks, made of 12-inch-thick lead clad with steel, were dropped into the water-filled fuel basin of B Reactor to be filled with irradiated fuel cooling there. Then the casks, with water added for cooling and shielding, were loaded into the double or triple wells of the cask railcars to make the trip to central Hanford.
Originally, fuel was removed from reactor pools within hours or a day to be taken by rail to additional cooling pools between B Reactor near the Columbia River and central Hanford to allow additional isotope decay. Then they were taken to T Plant for chemical processing.
However, starting in 1951, concerns about emissions of radioactive isotopes during processing changed that practice. Fuel was left longer in reactor cooling basins, and then directly taken to central Hanford processing plants.
Locomotives and cask cars continued to be used through the Cold War to carry irradiated fuel to processing plants in central Hanford from all nine plutonium production reactors that eventually would line the Columbia River.
The two locomotives that will be displayed at B Reactor are the only ones remaining of eight locomotives built by ALCO and acquired for Hanford in 1948. One is orange and the other has been painted with a white wash, dimming its orange color.
They are small switch engines, rather than engines that would be required to haul a longer line of cars, said Frank Roddy, DOE team lead on the project.
One of the cask cars that will be saved carries a horizontal three-well container and was purchased from Pacific Car & Foundry Co. of Renton, in 1944. Some of the cask cars were acquired with double wells and had third wells added later, according to DOE.
The second cask car had a vertical container, believed to have been used to carry N Reactor fuel. N Reactor, Hanford's newest plutonium production reactor, had a different design than the eight other Hanford production reactors.
It was one of four tall cask cars Hanford bought from the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1964, according to DOE.
All are parked now at a rail spur near the former 212-R Building, one of the three buildings used as a midway cooling stop for fuel until 1951.
The 12 other cars parked there, which include a flatcar, two tank cars and nine three-well cask cars, will be taken to the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, or ERDF, for low-level radioactive waste in central Hanford. The tank and cask cars will be filled with grout before disposal.
When DOE asked for public comment about what to do with the railcars and locomotives parked on the spur, it heard from railroad buffs across the state who wanted the WWII and Cold War relics saved.
But the initial cost proposal to decontaminate the cars of remaining radioactive material for display was too high to justify. It was not until Earl Lloyd, the project manager for CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co., suggested also filling them with grout to fix any contamination in place, that the cost fell to the same that would be required to dispose of them.
As an added benefit, space will be saved at the Hanford landfill.
At B Reactor, the cars will be fenced to prevent public contact.
The first locomotive, weighing about 125 tons, is expected to be loaded onto a heavy-haul trailer to be driven to B Reactor in May. Then CH2M Hill will go down the track in order, grouting cars as necessary, and hauling them either to the landfill or to B Reactor. Additional grouting of the tank cars will be done at ERDF.
Just a few years ago, DOE would not have spent the time to figure out how to save the locomotives and two cars, French said.
"They would be in ERDF by now," she said. "It's a signal of the changed nature of the thinking on preservation. It sends a signal to the contractors and I hope sends a signal to the community as well that we are saving these important figure heads of the Manhattan Project and Cold War."