Not since environmental cleanup began at Hanford has the nuclear reservation had a period where it could point to as much work completed as in the last 30 months.
As the Department of Energy wraps up most spending of its $1.96 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money, Hanford regulators and the state of Oregon, which keeps a close eye on Hanford, are calling the program a success.
Within a day of receiving its first Recovery Act money in spring 2009, Department of Energy contractors were hiring to ramp up cleanup.
Two and half years later Hanford has torn down 67 buildings and structures, dug up 73 waste sites, drilled 303 wells for ground water treatment, nearly completed two new plants to treat contaminated ground water and pulled 130 plutonium-contaminated glove boxes out of one of Hanford's high risk plants, among other work accomplished with the additional money.
"(DOE) and its contractors demonstrated they can make considerable progress when they have sufficient funds," said Ken Niles, nuclear safety division administrator for Oregon in a congratulatory letter to DOE's Hanford Richland Operations Office.
Hanford usually has about $2 billion annually to spend on maintenance and environmental cleanup of the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation, where it produced most of the plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program during the Cold War and World War II.
Work to level the industrial complex and clean up the radioactive and chemical contamination the program left could take until 2060 and cost $115 billion beyond what's already been spent, according to DOE's latest comprehensive cost and schedule report.
Often progress appears to be painfully slow to the public, because of the vast amount of work that is planned and also because much of the money the Department of Energy spends for environmental cleanup goes to high risk and difficult projects that can move slowly.
But Recovery Act money was spent on "shovel ready" projects -- typically those that were ready to go, were required to be done eventually and were covered by existing contracts, but had not risen to the top of the priority list.
"That's why we got so much money -- because we could pull it off," said Jon Peschong, Recovery Act project manager for the DOE Richland Operations Office.
2,500 jobs added
Among the Recovery Act goals at Hanford was adding the equivalent of 2,500 full-time jobs, shrinking the number of square miles of Hanford requiring cleanup by half and reducing the long-term costs of environmental cleanup.
All three were met, say Hanford officials.
In all the Department of Energy estimates about 10,000 people did a portion of the work completed at Hanford with Recovery Act money, including people hired full time with the money, those who did some work at Hanford along with other job responsibilities and workers who manufactured goods and materials needed for the project.
Jobs were saved, including the positions of about 300 people who were set to be laid off because their program working with debris contaminated with plutonium was ramping down because of a lack of money before the federal economic stimulus program.
Full-time equivalents were tracked every three months, and the number of people employed peaked early this calendar year at 3,861.
Unfortunately, with the end of economic stimulus people, many of those people are now looking for new work. Since spring, about 2,000 people have been laid off at Hanford, including new and experienced workers.
DOE officials said at the start of hiring with Recovery Act money that not all workers would have jobs at the end of Recovery Act spending, but they should have new skills to help them compete in the job market.
The footprint at Hanford requiring cleanup has shrunk from 586 to about 200 square miles, largely because of work to clean up the security perimeter of Hanford that's now part of the Hanford Reach National Monument and some other nearby land.
It's an example of work that had not been done because money needed to be spent on work that posed a high risk to the environment, but still was work that was on the books.
Before cleanup the land was dotted with buildings, research sites and debris that was not consistent with its use as a national monument. Gone are Cold War military buildings, many of the communication towers that once stood across the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, the remains of old research projects and debris such as wrecked cars.
Many of the projects completed with Recovery Act money included work that Hanford workers have previously shown they know how to do and do well. That included tearing down buildings, both those used for typical industrial uses and those that were radiologically contaminated, and digging up contaminated soil.
No breakthrough technology was needed for any of the work, helping most of it to be completed on or under budget and on or ahead of schedule.
But the spending did cover some first-of-a-kind or particularly hazardous work.
Hanford's U Canyon is the first huge chemical processing plant for radioactive materials in DOE's nationwide complex to be ready for demolition thanks to Recovery Act money. The building is called a canyon because of the long, high walls of its interior that stretch longer than the Seattle Space Needle is tall.
Workers fitted equipment like puzzle pieces into the 40 chemical processing cells beneath the deck of the canyon and then filled them with grout. The canyon walls now are ready to be demolished and the canyon's remains covered with a cap. Workers also have torn down all but one of the support buildings around the processing canyon and should finish that this month.
Recovery Act money also was used to help prepare the highly contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant for demolition, cleaning out and removing glove boxes where workers once turned plutonium into metal buttons the size of hockey pucks to be shipped to other weapons plants.
Planned work there and the single support building for U Canyon were the only projects not completed by DOE's goal of Sept. 30.
The hazardous work at the Plutonium Finishing Plant has been slowed to reduce the risk to workers and extended through December. Work then will continue with annual budget money.
Cleanup work continues
Oregon said the work to remove glove boxes at the plant has been particularly important as DOE works to have the plant demolished by 2015.
"PFP has long been recognized as one of the greatest hazards at Hanford -- not only to the work force, but also the public and the environment," said the letter from the state of Oregon.
It also has high overhead costs, reducing money that can be spent on environmental cleanup. Now the building takes $50 million annually out of the Hanford budget for surveillance and maintenance costs, according to DOE.
Both of Washington's highest priority projects were advanced with Recovery Act money, said Dieter Bohrmann, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Ecology, one of Hanford's regulators.
The state has been focused on protecting the Columbia River from contamination, both by cleaning up contaminated ground water and by emptying underground tanks of radioactive waste and treating the 56 million gallons of waste for disposal.
DOE had planned to build its largest and most sophisticated ground water treatment plant in central Hanford as money became available over three years. But Recovery Act money allowed work to start and now the plant is nearly complete. It should be commissioned and ready to start pumping contaminated waste out of the ground and treating it by spring.
Unlike most ground water treatment plants at Hanford, it will treat eight chemical and radioactive contaminants polluting the ground water in central Hanford. In addition, work has been completed on a new pump-and-treat plant that will remove chromium, which is particularly harmful to fish, from ground water near the Columbia River near the former D and DR reactors.
"The more ground water we can treat now, the more protective we can be of the river," Bohrmann said.
While most of the Recovery Act money was spent on direct cleanup, about $326 million was spent by the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection to prepare to deliver the radioactive waste now held in underground tanks to the vitrification plant for treatment starting by 2019.
Its work included developing technology to empty the tanks more efficiently and infrastructure improvements, both to help deliver the waste to the vitrification plant and to make sure that infrastructure at the tank farms would last many decades more until all the waste is treated for disposal.
One of the additional major accomplishments with the Recovery Act money was expanding the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility in central Hanford, the nuclear reservation's huge and busy lined landfill for disposing of low level and chemical waste, said Dennis Faulk, Hanford program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency, another Hanford regulators.
It's 50 percent larger plus has more ramps and roadways to allow more trucks to deliver waste thanks to economic stimulus money.
"Now ERDF is properly sized to receive waste," Peschong said. "Hanford only goes as ERDF goes. It all hinges on ERDF."
Peschong calculates that the $1.6 billion received by the DOE Richland Operations Office trimmed $3.6 billion off the total cost of Hanford cleanup had the work been delayed until more money was available.
But it also had another unexpected financial benefit for the nuclear reservation, Faulk said.
As projects came in mostly at or under budget, Congress took notice. It's helping Hanford secure a relatively substantial fiscal 2012 budget during tight economic times, Faulk said.
"We got tremendous bang for our buck," he said. "We showed we are a value to the taxpayer."
* More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.