Work has begun at Hanford to tear down what once was one of the nation's most secure complexes.
The Plutonium Finishing Plant's vault complex, which once stored plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program, is coming down.
About two-thirds of the nation's plutonium was produced at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, where liquid plutonium that had been processed from fuel irradiated at Hanford reactors was formed into metal buttons the size of hockey pucks.
Until the end of the Cold War, the buttons were shipped to other DOE sites to be fabricated into metal pieces for weapons.
But after the Cold War, 2,300 canisters of plutonium, each the size of a large coffee can, were left stored at the vault complex under heavy guard as the Plutonium Finishing Plant was cleaned out. The weights of the cans varied, but some held nearly 10 pounds of plutonium.
Work has been under way for years to prepare for the demolition.
The last of the plutonium was shipped to Savannah River, S.C., in 2009 as part of a project to consolidate the nation's weapons grade materials at one site. Work then began to clean out the vault complex for demolition.
The vault complex included storage vaults built in 1971 where canisters holding plutonium were stored initially on free-standing pedestals. But as plutonium was stabilized and cleaned out of the Plutonium Finishing Plant after the Cold War ended, storage capacity was increased by laying the canisters on their sides like wine bottles in what employees called "wine racks."
The vault complex also included an annex built in 1983, just six years before plutonium processing stopped, which housed nine glove boxes. The last of those glove boxes, which were used to assay and package plutonium, was removed early this year. Excess material also was stabilized in the glove boxes.
CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. crews began demolishing some of the smaller support structures at the vault complex this week and will demolish two contaminated facilities that once stored plutonium next.
"We're starting with the smaller facilities first," said Kurt Kehler, CH2M Hill decommissioning and demolition project vice president, in a statement. "After Thanksgiving, we'll start demolishing the contaminated facilities, and we expect to finish soon after the new year."
The vault complex includes more than 20,000 square feet of facilities.
"Cleaning out and demolishing these structures is a key element of DOE's vision for completing several major cleanup projects by 2015," said J.D. Dowell, DOE assistant manager for central Hanford. DOE plans to have the entire Plutonium Finishing Plant demolished to slab on grade by then and most cleanup completed along the Columbia River.
"Ecology continues to support early cleanup of the Plutonium Finishing Plant, both to remove an urgent environmental risk, and so that budget required for surveillance and maintenance of the facility can be redirected to other cleanup projects," said Dieter Bohrmann, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Ecology, the regulator on the project.
* More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com