The Richland Operations Office continued its legacy of success this year and is setting the stage for the next decade of cleanup at the Hanford Site. As we’re finishing cleanup along the Columbia River and looking at future beneficial uses of that area, there is much work to be done in the center of the Site.
In the past year, Richland and its contractors brought the Plutonium Finishing Plant closer to demolition in 2016. Workers finished removing 52 pencil-shaped tanks from the plant’s Plutonium Reclamation Facility. Workers in specially designed protective suits also tackled one of the highest-hazard jobs on the Hanford Site — the removal of glove boxes from a room in the plant where an explosion in 1976 contaminated processing equipment from floor to ceiling. As this year began, crews were focused on safety as they finished cutting up the last of more than 200 glove boxes, large enclosures that housed the plant’s plutonium production equipment. Demolishing Hanford’s highest-hazard facility will free up funding that was once spent on upkeep of an old Cold War plant for other critical cleanup work at Hanford.
Major projects in the decade ahead are focused on reducing and eliminating safety and environmental risks. Workers will move nearly 2,000 highly radioactive capsules of cesium and strontium from a water-filled storage basin at the Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility to dry storage. The capsules contain approximately one-third of the total radioactivity of materials at Hanford.
Richland will also continue to treat and package for disposal radioactive waste from past plutonium operations that was stored in trenches during the Cold War. The Department of Energy will be working with its contractors to develop new capabilities for treating the largest containers of waste and waste that is so radioactive it requires remote handling.
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Much of Hanford’s infrastructure — roads, water and electrical systems, and hundreds of facilities that contain contamination — require repairs and upgrades to ensure they can still support safe cleanup operations in the decades ahead.
Below the surface of Hanford, cleaning up and protecting groundwater is also critical to site safety and protecting the environment. During the past year, Richland continued its successes in treating and monitoring groundwater. Last year, workers treated a record 2.4 billion gallons to remove a variety of chemical and radiological contamination. At the site’s largest treatment plant, workers added equipment and the capability to remove uranium from groundwater near the center of the site. Central Hanford is where Hanford’s processing facilities are located and where much of the groundwater contamination remains. In the coming decade, workers will continue to expand the treatment coverage area and make upgrades to treatment systems to remediate contamination that is moving toward the Columbia River, which runs through the 586-square-mile site.
Cleanup of the 220-square-mile area along the river, what we call the River Corridor, is nearing completion, with many successes during the past decade. Six of nine reactors have been “cocooned,” with hundreds of former support facilities near the reactors and in Hanford’s reactor fuel fabrication and research complex, the 300 Area, cleaned out and torn down. More than a thousand sites with contaminated soil and waste have been cleaned up. Critical projects remain to be completed in the next few years, including remediation of the K Reactor Area — after 27 cubic meters (35 cubic yards) of radioactive sludge is removed. Two major waste burial sites, called burial grounds, will be cleaned up, and the last building in the 300 Area, a former fuel research facility, and a highly radioactive waste site under the building will be cleaned up. This summer, workers will celebrate 20 years of operating Hanford’s permitted disposal facility, the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, which has received more than 16 million tons of low-level radioactive waste from cleanup along the river.
Completing cleanup along the river sets the stage for future beneficial uses of portions of the Site and increased controlled access by members of Native American tribes and the public. In the past year, approximately 1,600 acres of land was transferred to the local Community Reuse Organization, which is pursuing industrial development for economic growth. In November, five historic sites at Hanford — including the B Reactor — were named part of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The Department of Energy has signed agreements with area tribes to provide more controlled access to the site.
Cleanup of the site has a long way to go, because of the extent and complexity of contamination in facilities, the ground and in groundwater. However, Richland’s federal and contractor employees have created a legacy of success that positions the office well to follow its new vision for cleanup over the next decade and positions the department’s community and tribal partners well for using more of the Hanford Site in the future.