The Plutonium Reclamation Facility at Hanford is history.
On Friday, workers finished tearing down the facility. It was considered the most hazardous portion of a particularly high hazard project, demolition of the nuclear reservation’s Plutonium Finishing Plant.
The plant, with the reclamation facility added to one end, was the largest and most complex plutonium facility in the nationwide Department of Energy complex, DOE officials have said.
The finishing plant operated for 40 years starting in 1949 to turn plutonium that arrived in a liquid solution at the plant into buttons the size of hockey pucks, or into a powder that could be shipped to the nation’s nuclear weapons production plants. The work left much of the plant highly contaminated with plutonium, other radioactive material or hazardous chemicals.
Work started to tear down the reclamation facility at the start of November 2016, but halted a couple of times over the last 13 months to make sure workers were safe after radioactive particles became airborne and workers breathed in small amounts.
The reclamation facility — a 22,000-square-foot annex with a “penthouse” standing six stories high — was added to the main plant in 1963 to recover plutonium from the plant’s scrap material. The escalating Cold War had increased the demand for plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
The reclamation facility had a tall central canyon, and its sides were hung with 52 skinny “pencil” tanks, some as long as 22 feet. They were shaped to prevent an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
It took years to remove the pencil tanks and prepare for demolition of the facility using heavy equipment.
The same remotely operated crane that was put into service in 1964 to move the pencil tanks within the canyon also was needed to move the defunct tanks into a maintenance bay. It was showing its age as workers began to clean out the canyon, and from 2010 to 2014 the crane was out of service half of the time.
The most recent halt to demolition at the Plutonium Reclamation Facility was on Wednesday.
Work stopped for two days when air monitors worn by workers south of the demolition projects at both the main section of the finishing plant and its reclamation facility showed there was a possibility that several workers may have inhaled small amounts of airborne radioactive material.
The airborne contamination control area was expanded to the south, and work resumed Friday with workers in areas that had suspicious air monitoring readings last week wearing respirators.
All that was needed to finish leveling the reclamation facility was a partial day of work Friday.
Ty Blackford, president of CH2M at Hanford, sent a message of congratulations to workers.
“Great job!” he said. But he also cautioned that challenges and risks remain.
A large amount of debris from the demolition of the reclamation facility remains at the site and needs to be loaded out, he said. And workers still need to complete demolishing what is left of the core of the main finishing plant processing area.
Work began to clean out the finishing plant about two decades ago, starting with stabilizing the plutonium left in a liquid solution when the plant shut down.
Now all that remains of 90 permanent structures at the plant is a portion of the main processing plant. Workers have torn the main structure down to an area where workers produced plutonium buttons at two long lines of glove boxes.
DOE had a legal deadline to have the plant down to its foundation by the end of September. It had notified its regulators that month that the end was in sight, but more time was needed.
Blackford said finishing demolition of the plant to its foundation could be finished in a few weeks.