Hanford will miss deadline to tear down plutonium-contaminated plant

The Plutonium Finishing Plant is shown from the air as it looked in August. The blue area is where fixative has been sprayed at the former McCluskey Room and the plant’s Plutonium Reclamation Facility to control airborne contamination during demolition using heavy equipment.
The Plutonium Finishing Plant is shown from the air as it looked in August. The blue area is where fixative has been sprayed at the former McCluskey Room and the plant’s Plutonium Reclamation Facility to control airborne contamination during demolition using heavy equipment. Courtesy DOE

Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant will not be torn down by the legal deadline at the end of September.

The Department of Energy notified its regulators — the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency — on Friday that the deadline could not be met.

But the end remains in sight after two decades of work on cleanup of a plant left highly radioactively contaminated after 40 years of service to the nation.

“Tremendous progress has been made, but for safety and other reasons it will take a few more months,” Doug Shoop, manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office, said on Friday.

Weather and improvements to better protect workers after the spread of radioactive contamination have put the cleanup and demolition project on a slower pace than anticipated over the past nine months.

Shoop expects the plant will be torn down to the ground by the end of this year or possibly early 2018, after two decades of work.

Work has been underway since the ’90s to prepare the plant for demolition, including stabilizing plutonium left in a liquid solution at the plant when it shut down.

Workers have cleaned plutonium and other hazardous material from about 200 pieces of processing equipment and glove boxes. They also have cleaned out 1.5 miles of contaminated ventilation piping and plutonium processing lines, removing most of it from the plant.

Part of the Plutonium Reclamation Facility at one end of the Hanford Plutonium Finishing Plant has been partly demolished. Blue fixative is sprayed on the building during demolition to help prevent airborne contamination. Courtesy DOE

Officials at the Department of Ecology are disappointed in the delay, said Ron Skinnerland, manager of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program’s waste management section.

But they understand there are good reasons for work to take longer, and they support safe working conditions for employees at the plant, he said.

“We want them to complete the work and do it safely,” he said.

During the Cold War, about two-thirds of the nation's plutonium for its nuclear weapons program came off of the plant’s two main production lines.

Plutonium in a liquid solution was turned into buttons the size of hockey pucks and oxide powder for shipment to a nuclear weapons manufacturing plant from 1949 to 1989.

“It is the largest, most complex plutonium facility in the entire nation and at one time was called the most dangerous building in (DOE’s) weapons complex,” Shoop said.

The plant was to be torn down by September 2016, but a yearlong extension to the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement deadline was granted as workers tackled some of the most hazardous and difficult projects to clean out the plant before starting demolition.

Contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. committed to do no more than one high-hazard project at a time early in 2016 to allow attention to be focused on the hazards of each phase of work and to provide higher confidence in preparations for demolition of the plant.

The fact is the building is coming down and coming down safely. We will get it done.

Ty Blackford, president of CH2M at Hanford

This year an unusually cold and snowy winter delayed demolition work. By mid-February, workers had lost the equivalent of 23 10-hour work days to bad weather, including days so cold that water sprayed to control the spread of possible airborne contamination during demolition would turn to snow.

Next, workers contended with an unusually windy spring that delayed safe “open air” demolition of the highly contaminated facility using heavy equipment.

Contamination still spread twice this year during demolition.

Most recently, on June 8, about 350 workers at the plant were ordered to take cover indoors because airborne radioactive particles were detected during demolition.

Results of Washington State Department of Health air samples collected from three miles away from the plant the same day came back Aug. 7, showing low levels of airborne radioactive particles.

A Hanford Atomic Metals Trade Council safety representative responded by issuing a stop work order after workers were told of the results.

Workers and union officials also were concerned that results of some initial bioassay tests — checks of workers’ bodily waste — showed some workers inhaled or ingested small amounts of radioactive particles. All bioassay tests are expected to be completed this month.

CH2M and union officials agreed by Aug. 11 that work on demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant would remain halted until the safety boundary around the demolition area was expanded to better protect workers. The expansion is close to completion,, and demolition is close to restarting.

glove box removal
CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. workers in protective clothing work to remove highly contaminated equipment in preparation for the demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant. Courtesy DOE

The expanded area includes several trailers used to support workers. Rather than moving the trailers farther from the plant, CH2M has established new support areas outside the expanded safety boundary and moved people and equipment to them.

Progress has been made on tearing down the plant.

The McCluskey Room, the site of a 1976 explosion that injured worker Harold McCluskey, has been torn down. It was added onto one end of the main processing area of the plant along with a larger building called the Plutonium Reclamation Facility, where demolition started in late 2016.

In July, an explosive demolition brought down the 200-foot ventilation stack for the plant.

Demolition also has been done on a one-story section of the main plant that included lockers and other areas to support the safe entry of workers into the more highly contaminated processing areas of the plant.

Plans call for doing demolition on two areas of the plant at once, but another glitch will delay that for a couple of weeks.

A decades-old water main failed, and until the issue is resolved demolition in only one area of the plant can be supported.

The water issue is one more sign that it’s time to have the building demolished, Hanford officials said.

“The fact is the building is coming down and coming down safely,” said Ty Blackford, president of CH2M at Hanford. “We will get it done.”

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews