Report questions safety of 74-year-old electrical system at Hanford nuclear plant

The nation’s oldest operating nuclear facility, a huge building at Hanford, needs an electrical upgrade to ensure safe operations, according to a review by an independent board.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board says much of the electrical system is original to the building and has been in use for 74 years.

The aged electrical components put the ventilation system at risk, according to the board’s July report.

The system is designed to confine any airborne radioactive contamination; confining radioactive contamination could be an issue during spills and fires.

There is no backup generation capability.

The plant in the center of the Hanford Site is used to store highly radioactive sludge created as irradiated fuel degraded as it was stored underwater without processing. Shipments of sludge to T Plant are continuing.

T Plant, the first chemical processing and separations plant of its kind in the world, began operating in 1945.

T Plant, built starting in 1943, is 800 feet long, 65 feet wide and 80 feet high. Courtesy Department of Energy

During WWII and the early Cold War, it was used to chemically separate plutonium from irradiated uranium fuel to supply the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

New uses found for WWII T Plant

Early Hanford nuclear reservation workers called it the Queen Mary. Its long, thin shape and partially underground construction reminded them of the famous ocean liner of the era.

The 800-foot-long building, longer than the Space Needle is tall, has not been used for chemical separations work since the more efficient PUREX plant came on line in the mid-50s.

But its sturdy construction, with 7-foot-thick walls to provide radiation shielding, has kept it in use for treating, packaging or storing radioactive waste.

With DOE now using the plant to store radioactive sludge from the K West Reactor Basin until it can be treated for disposal, there is not a clear timeline for how long T Plant will need a ventilation system for safe operations, the defense board said.

It recommends DOE find a backup power system, focus on preventive maintenance and replace aging electrical support equipment to extend the life of the plant.

Components of the government-green panels used to operate T Plant’s chemical processing operations are no longer used and will be preserved for their historic value. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

“We appreciate the input from the board and their recognition of significant progress and improvement that the department has made to the electrical infrastructure on the Hanford Site,” DOE said in a statement.

Review praises electrical improvements at site

The board report looked at Hanford’s electrical distribution, facility power, backup power and emergency lighting systems.

“The board observed that the Hanford Site has made progress on improving the site wide electrical infrastructure over the past few years,” the report said. “There are projects planned that, when completed, should allow the operational flexibility necessary to manage the evolving Hanford mission.”

T Plant at Hanford has been used for nuclear operations since 1945. Courtesy Department of Energy

The defense board team that reviewed electrical systems at Hanford also noted that emergency lighting across the site was generally not designed to continue operating after earthquakes to support workers leaving buildings.

It also said there should be a regular inspection or maintenance program for some underground electrical distribution system cabling at Hanford.

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.