Hanford rail tracks to be reused

Hanford railroad track, some that is more than a century old, is being pulled up to get yet another life -- but after testing for radioactivity.

Washington Closure Hanford is removing more than 30 miles of rail spurs that ran to the nine plutonium production reactors along the Columbia River and to the 300 Area just north of Richland, where uranium fuel was fabricated and research conducted.

Rather than add the steel track to the landfill in central Hanford, the Department of Energy agreed to a subcontract that will allow the tracks to be transferred to a Utah company that markets all kinds of rail track.

"It's environmentally friendly and represents a cost savings for DOE," said Brian Stubbs, Washington Closure project manager.

The work also has provided an interesting glimpse into history.

More than 100 years ago, no one could have imagined Hanford would be built. But Andrew Carnegie was manufacturing steel rails that were used decades later at the nuclear reservation -- and which may be used again.

During the World War II rush to build Hanford to produce plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, steel was in short supply.

"They needed to get all the rail as fast as they could," said Tim Kilian, senior project manager for Trinity Environmental and Deconstruction of Tacoma, the subcontractor on the current Hanford project.

Workers pulling out the rails have found a patchwork of about 17 types, the oldest being Carnegie rail marked 1899. It's still in good shape, Kilian said.

The rail lines were used to carry radioactive material, including hauling irradiated fuel from the reactors to central Hanford for processing. So before the railing is released to the private sector, it's been checked for radioactive contamination.

The only hot spot found along 30 miles was a small mud dauber wasp nest from one section of rail near H Reactor. That piece of rail will not leave the nuclear reservation.

In 2003, water was sprayed to control dust during demolition of a basin attached to H Reactor and the mud created was collected by the wasps to build nests. Most of the radioactive wasp nests that resulted were located and cleaned up in 2009.

To check the rails for radioactive contamination, Eberline Services Inc. built a rail hand cart that was pushed by hand along the 30 miles. It provided an efficient way to survey the track, Stubbs said.

"It rolls real easy down the track," said Jim Craig, Eberline project manager.

Gamma and beta detectors hanging low off each side of the cart scanned for radioactivity and a global positioning system recorded the location of any suspicious reading.

In addition, crews also are checking 10 percent of the rails with hand-held instruments after they were removed to double-check for contamination.

All 30 miles of track have had the initial check for radioactivity and 12 miles of track have been pulled up.

About 82,000 wooden ties also are being pulled up and will be taken to the landfill for low-level radioactive and chemical waste in central Hanford.

But valuable landfill space will be saved by reusing the railroad track, Stubbs said.

Trinity Environmental and Deconstruction has teamed with A&K Railroad Materials of Salt Lake City, Utah, which will add the rails to its inventory for sale for reuse.

Retail prices vary widely for used railroad track depending on condition and weight, but a mile of track might be sold for about $40,000.

The deal Washington Closure worked out with Trinity Environmental and Deconstruction allows the company to receive the rail in return for removing the rail. Stubbs estimated the deal will save DOE about $2 million.

Work to remove the rails started in August and should be completed in February. It's one more step to clean up Hanford along the Columbia River by 2015.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com