DOE says Hanford contractor punished enough for radioactive contamination spread

Time lapse of demolition of the Plutonium Reclamation Facility

A time lapse video from the Plutonium Finishing Plant demolition at the Hanford nuclear reservation shows progress during the month of May on the Plutonium Reclamation Facility. Radioactive contamination spread from the demolition of the facility
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A time lapse video from the Plutonium Finishing Plant demolition at the Hanford nuclear reservation shows progress during the month of May on the Plutonium Reclamation Facility. Radioactive contamination spread from the demolition of the facility

The Department of Energy is not planning to fine a Hanford contractor responsible for an airborne spread of radioactive particles in 2017, with contamination continuing to be found into 2018.

It said in a preliminary notice of violation issued Monday that it identified five violations in connection with repeated incidents of the spread of contamination outside of areas where it is normally expected and precautions are taken.

“DOE considers the spread of radiological contamination outside of the established radiological boundary of the Plutonium Finishing Plant to be of high safety significance,” said a letter from the DOE Office of Enforcement to CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. (CHPRC), a Jacobs Engineering Group company.

Radioactive contamination was found in December 2017 next to administrative buildings, on worker cars that were driven home, on government vehicles and outside in an area where workers ate lunch in warmer months, the letter and attached report said.

Demolition of the Plutonium Reclamation Facility, the most contaminated part of the Plutonium Finishing Plant at the Hanford nuclear reservation, led to the spread of radioactive particles in December 2017.

Tests showed that 42 workers inhaled or ingested small amounts of radioactive material.

However, DOE is not proposing a civil fine because CH2M already had its possible incentive pay docked.

It was cut by $1 million in fiscal 2017 because of a contamination spread in June 2017 and $1.8 million in fiscal 2018 for a contamination spread in December 2017, the letter said.

In fiscal 2018, CH2M was awarded about $10 million in incentive pay, or about 80 percent of the fee available, for a wide range of environmental cleanup work at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

In fiscal 2017 it also received about $10 million, or about 89 percent of the smaller amount of pay available.

Hanford demolition project challenging

DOE found that CH2M’s plan to correct shortcomings that contributed to the spread of contamination likely would prevent a recurrence, although the plan did not address all deficiencies, according to the letter.

“This has been a learning experience for CHPRC, and we’ve taken actions in response to the events at PFP,” said Ty Blackford, contractor president, in a message to employees.

“Demolition of the PFP (Plutonium Finishing Plant), once the most hazardous facility in the DOE complex, has and will continue to be challenging,” he said.

An unusually snowy winter delay progress at the Plutonium Finishing Plant in February and March. Courtesy Department of Energy

The plant was used during the Cold War to process two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Plutonium came into the plant in a liquid solution and was turned into solids that could be sent to weapons production plants.

The preliminary notice of violation report said DOE had found three Severity Level II Violations, which represent a significant lack of attention or carelessness toward the protection of the public or worker safety.

They are less severe than Level I violations. which have an actual or high potential for adverse impacts on the public or workers.

The Level II violations include failures in contamination control, monitoring and quality improvement during demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

Violations in contamination spread

Fogging equipment, which was meant to control the spread of contamination during demolition, sprayed water at velocities of 114 mph, which had the potential to push or dislodge contamination, the report said.

Although mostly specks of contamination were found to have spread, some were so highly radioactive that they should have been contained in areas with protective measures for high levels of contamination, the report said. They included the contamination found on one worker’s vehicle.

Fixative used to contain contamination on surfaces was diluted beyond the manufacturer’s recommendations to make it easier to apply.

Watch as Hanford workers apply fixative to contaminated areas around the Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford.

Monitoring was too limited to find the spread of contamination outside of areas where precautions were taken, such as requiring workers to wear protective gear, the report said.

DOE also found two Severity Level III violations that are less serious but uncorrected could lead to a more serious concern.

They were for deficiencies in hazard analysis and for not following DOE processes for reporting and reviewing new safety questions when procedures changed.

CH2M could restart demolition soon

Demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant in the center of the nuclear reservation has been halted since the contamination spread was discovered in December 2017, with more contamination identified in early 2018.

Work to load up and remove unpackaged contaminated demolition rubble also halted, although rubble was stabilized to prevent the spread of further contamination.

The north side of the Hanford Site Plutonium Finishing Plant had been nearly cleared of demolition debris in March. The debris is packaged and transported to a central Hanford lined landfill. Courtesy Department of Energy

Work to remove contaminated demolition rubble resumed in September, and actual demolition should restart by mid month, Blackford said. The schedule has been delayed by heavy winter snowfall.

CH2M is required to reply to the preliminary notice of violations within 30 days. If CH2M does not contest the preliminary notice, the findings will become final.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.