More research before tearing down reactor

More information is needed before the Department of Energy decides whether to tear down the K East Reactor, according to the Hanford Advisory Board.

DOE issued a review this fall recommending tearing the reactor down soon, rather than cocooning it as DOE had planned earlier for most of the Hanford plutonium-production reactors. In cocooning, reactors are torn down to little more than their cores, reroofed, sealed and left to let radioactivity decay for more manageable levels for 75 years.

The board's concerns should not be interpreted to mean that it opposes immediately tearing down the K East Reactor, the board said in advice to the Department of Energy and its regulators.

Instead, it wants a continued and closer look at issues such as how the project would be done, what it would cost and how spending the money for it might affect budgets for other Hanford projects.

After the Cold War ended, the basin attached to the K East Reactor was used to store irradiated fuel that had not been processed to remove plutonium for nuclear weapons. That fuel corroded, and the contaminated water in the basin leaked, contaminating the soil near and possibly under the reactor, which is just 400 yards from the Columbia River.

Digging up the soil is not possible without undermining support structures for the reactor block, the advisory board agreed.

DOE has been investigating tearing down the reactor after work to dismantle a reactor core at the Brookhaven National Laboratory has demonstrated remotely operated equipment could be safely used to do the job, according to the engineering evaluation and cost analysis on tearing down the K East Reactor at Hanford.

But, the advisory board said, "While Brookhaven provides important lessons learned, there are significant differences in scale, reactor construction, coolant type and operating history in Hanford."

HAB would have liked the report to include project schedules, staffing requirements, special equipment needs, estimates of the radioactivity workers could be exposed to and waste disposal volumes.

Without analysis of the proposed dismantling, there are no new cost estimates, the board said. Instead, DOE projected the costs based on an 18-year-old report on whether plutonium production reactors should be dismantled or cocooned, the board said.

The board also was concerned that accelerating the K East Reactor project could cause other Hanford environmental cleanup to be delayed and legal deadlines might be missed.

DOE issued the review because it wanted to know what the public thinks about tearing down the reactor early in the decision-making process, said Nick Ceto, DOE record of decision program manager. DOE also will issue a formal response to the advisory board.

How much of the engineering design should be done before making a decision to go ahead with a project is a balancing act, he said. There will be more cost information available before a decision is made on whether to tear down the reactor, he said.

When more analysis is done, the board wants another chance for the board and the public to comment. Public comment on the review is being accepted until Wednesday, and information is available at hanford.gov on each day of the events calendar through then.

The Environmental Protection Agency supports getting the reactor off the river sooner rather than later, but agrees that the more complex a cleanup project is, the more sophisticated the evaluation needs to be, said Dennis Faulk, Hanford program manager for EPA, which is the regulator on the project.