The state has fined the Department of Energy $16,000 when nothing was done after some suspicious material was found at Hanford’s PUREX processing plant.
PUREX is one of five large plants built at the nuclear reservation to chemically process irradiated uranium to remove plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.
The Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant operated until 1988, processing 70,000 tons of uranium fuel rods.
Earlier this year one of the waste storage tunnels at the plant partially collapsed, but that incident is unrelated to the material found inside the plant.
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“The Washington State Department of Ecology assessed the penalty after trying for more than a year to get the powder identified,” the agency said in a statement Thursday.
During a state-required annual inspection of the plant in May 2015, DOE contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. workers found a white powder on the floor and on equipment that they could not identify, according to the Department of Ecology.
“I don’t think any of us is surprised anymore when new potential hazards are identified at Hanford, but it is important to identify what those hazards are,” said John Price, the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Tri-Party Agreement section manager.
When Hanford officials had not taken action to identify the power by November 2016, the Department of Ecology issued an inspection report on the plant, citing DOE with a violation and requiring it to submit a sampling plan within 60 days, Price said.
I don’t think any of us is surprised anymore when new potential hazards are identified at Hanford, but it is important to identify what those hazards are.
John Price, state Department of Ecology
A month later CH2M inspectors conducted their next scheduled walk-through of the plant and again saw white powder, but collected no samples.
“The white powder identified is in a safe and stable condition within the confines of PUREX, has not been released to the environment and does not constitute a threat to human health and the environment,” DOE wrote in a letter to the Department of Ecology two months later.
The state warned DOE then that not complying with its order could result in a penalty.
The state Department of Ecology issued the $16,000 fine Thursday when no action had yet been taken to sample the powder and identify whether it was a hazardous waste, Price said.
“If this powder is a dangerous waste, it’s important to clean it up before it spreads further,” Price said. “We want to avoid delays that cause a bigger cleanup with increased worker risks and higher costs.”
The state also set up a schedule of steps it is ordering Hanford officials to take.
By Oct. 31 they must determine whether the waste is hazardous or not. It it is hazardous, officials must submit a plan to recover the waste by Nov. 15.
The white powder identified is in a safe and stable condition within the confines of PUREX, has not been released to the environment and does not constitute a threat to human health and the environment.
Department of Energy
Hanford officials will have up to 90 days after Oct. 31 to recover the waste if it is determined to be hazardous.
“We have received the notice and are evaluating it as we determine our next steps,” DOE said in a statement.
A white powder also was found in one of Hanford’s other defunct processing plants, REDOX, in late 2012.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates REDOX, rather than the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Then the powder was sampled and determined to be sodium chloride, or salt, used to neutralize the processing system after it was shut down in 1967.
According to a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board staff report, the salt appeared to be corroding through the stainless steel process piping.