Radiological safety being improved at plutonium plant at Hanford

Improvements are being made to increase radiological safety at Hanford's Plutonium Finishing Plant since a critical report from the Department of Energy in July.

"The concern, and the number and significance of deficiencies identified in the report represents a significant adverse condition with respect to regulatory and contractual requirement compliance," DOE said in a letter to contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. in July.

In some cases, the problems extended beyond the plant to the contractor's program for all radiological work, the letter said. The letter and report recently were obtained by Hanford Challenge.

The Plutonium Finishing Plant was used to make plutonium produced in Hanford reactors into metal buttons the size of hockey pucks for shipment to the nation's weapons production plants. Work was done inside an extensive complex of glove boxes, with workers inserting their hands inside gloves attached to portals on the shielded boxes to do work with radioactive material.

Now workers are decontaminating the glove boxes, detaching them and, in many cases, cutting them up to fit into containers that can be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for disposal.

Work began with some of the least challenging glove boxes, although all are high hazard because of the risk to workers from the residual plutonium they contain.

But now work is being done on Remote Mechanical A-Line and C-Line, which have series of glove boxes connected in production lines about 60 to 80 feet long that moved plutonium from work station to work station.

They are in narrow rooms with little space to work and share common air spaces, making work more challenging.

The DOE report cited problems in different areas of the plant this year, including a previously reported incident in March in which four workers inhaled small amounts of airborne plutonium. Contamination was radioactively equivalent to two chest X-rays for the two workers with the most exposure, according to CH2M Hill.

CH2M Hill took prompt action as problems were identified, according to DOE. That included increasing radiation protection technical staff to begin addressing technical issues and improving radiation protection involvement in work planning, according to the DOE letter.

CH2M Hill also is working on other improvements.

"We developed a very comprehensive suite of corrective actions" for concerns identified by DOE and CH2M Hill said Jerry Long, vice president of Plutonium Finishing Plant closure. Some of the improvements will be implemented not only at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, but on all CH2M Hill projects.

The Plutonium Finishing Plant is unusual for the amount of plutonium contamination, rather than cesium and strontium contamination, which is more common at some other parts of the Hanford nuclear reservation.

Plutonium poses a particular risk for inhalation and contamination limits are substantially lower than for some other radionuclides.

CH2M Hill hired radiological technical staff with experience decontaminating plutonium facilities and also brought in corporate and other experts.

It has improved its work instructions for specific assignments, making sure they do not allow any unintended flexibility, and has made sure the instructions are followed closely.

Long has talked to all directors, managers and first-line supervisors, emphasizing that not only is it OK to stop and back out of work if there is an issue, but also that they should demand that, he said.

"Overall we have seen improvement in the program," said Geoff Tyree, DOE spokesman.

DOE is working in partnership with CH2M Hill to improve performance and correct weaknesses in the radiological program, he said. DOE will continue to do surveillance on the program in the coming year, including watching to make sure that improvements are permanent, he said.