Exclusive: Deadly radioactive sludge safely away from Columbia River. What’s next for Hanford?

The Columbia River is safer this week after Hanford nuclear reservation workers removed the last of the highly radioactive sludge stored in underwater containers near it.

The project came in ahead of schedule and under budget after 10 years of work, said Energy Secretary Rick Perry in a call to the Tri-City Herald on Wednesday.

“Those are two phrases you don’t hear very often in this world of environmental cleanup,” he said.

He plans to visit Hanford on Oct. 1 for a formal ceremony and celebration of getting the waste to safer storage.

When he was confirmed as energy secretary he told DOE staff: “I don’t want to feel like I’m just kicking the can down the road. Let’s really roll up our sleeves and move the ball forward on this.”

The successful completion of the project, ahead of a legal deadline, shows Northwest residents and the tribes with treaty rights on the 580-square-mile nuclear reservation, that they can trust DOE to complete critical environmental cleanup work on time, he said.

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The 20th and final container of highly radioactive sludge leaves the 100-K West Reactor Annex on Sept. 9 on its way to T Plant for safe storage away from the Columbia River. Courtesy Department of Energy

The Hanford site near Richland in Eastern Washington state produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

Work has been underway to clean up the massively contaminated site for three decades at a cost of up to $2.5 billion a year.

“I hope we are going to cleanup that part of the world and get it back to as pristine a condition as we can,” Perry said.

Sludge transfer long in the works

Cleanup of Hanford is expected to continue for more than half a century, including treating 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks.

The radioactive sludge still needs to be treated for disposal, with no date yet set for that work.

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The first load of radioactive sludge arrived at Hanford’s T Plant in the center of the nuclear reservation in June 2018. The tractor trailer holding the container is shown before backing into a tunnel at the plant to allow the container to be placed in an underground cell at the plant. Courtesy Department of Energy

The sludge is now stored in below-ground cells at T Plant in central Hanford. The cells were built to provide shielding from radiation at the plant, the nation’s longest operating nuclear facility. It was originally used to remove plutonium from irradiated fuel.

The sludge is highly radioactive because it contains particles of deteriorated irradiated fuel that was not processed at the end of the Cold War to remove plutonium.

Instead, the fuel was stored in water-filled cooling basins attached to the K West and K East reactors at Hanford about 400 yards from the Columbia River.

Before the fuel was removed in 2004, it corroded underwater, and fuel corrosion particles, metal fragments and dirt combined to form sludge.

About 950 cubic feet of sludge accumulated in the basins, with all the sludge collected and transferred to underwater containers in the K West Basin by 2008.

Hanford contractor CH2M HIll Plateau Remediation Co., owned by Jacobs Engineering, spent a decade on the sludge transfer project, most of that making extensive and careful preparations.

It built a sludge transfer annex next to the K West Basin at a cost of $290 million — under the $311 million budget.

First sludge shipment last year

A mock-up of key parts of both the annex and the K West Basin water pool was built inside another Hanford building, the Maintenance and Storage Facility.

The equipment designed for sludge transfer was tested there and workers repeatedly practiced using the tools and the procedures for the transfer before it started.

Batches of sludge were pumped from the underwater containers at the K West Basin into new 10-foot-tall containers staged on flat-bed trucks backed into the annex.

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Hanford workers take apart a cask in the transfer bay at Hanford’s K West Basin, which is about 400 yards from the Columbia River, as work started in 2009 to deal with radioactive sludge. The cask was used to ship samples to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for characterization. Courtesy Department of Energy

Because the sludge is so radioactive, the filled containers included several feet of water above the sludge to shield workers from radiation as they disconnect the sludge transfer hoses from the filled containers.

Disconnecting the hoses and other steps to prepare filled containers for transport posed the most risk to workers, but the project was completed to plan with no contamination incidents. There also was no loss of radioactive material.

The first 12-mile trip with sludge was made to T Plant 14 months ago.

Once at T Plant, the tractor trailer holding the sludge container was backed into a plant tunnel, allowing the container to be placed in a cell that has leak detectors and a catch pan ready in the unlikely event of a leak, according to DOE.

Nineteen more trips were needed to move all the sludge.

Perry said that DOE had good support on the project from Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

More deadlines for K Reactor cleanup

More work remains to be done at the K West and K East Reactors, two of nine reactors that once produced plutonium along the Columbia River at Hanford.

About two years are expected to be required for work that includes removing some highly contaminated scrap material remaining in the K West Reactor’s cooling basin, including tools and pumps, and then draining the water.

The K East Reactor’s Basin has already been demolished.

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Workers check equipment inside the K West Basin at the Hanford nuclear reservation. The equipment was used to remove radioactive sludge for transfer to central Hanford storage. Courtesy DOE

Plans call for both K Reactors to be placed into long-term storage like most of the other Hanford production reactors, allowing some of the radiation in their core to decay to less hazardous levels over 75 years. Then a decision on final disposition of the reactors could be made.

Six Hanford reactors have been “cocooned” so far, having their structures torn down to little more than their core. They were then reroofed and sealed up.

One Hanford reactor is being left standing, historic B Reactor, and is open for tours as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

That leaves the two K Reactors as the last two to be put in storage. DOE may try a new storage method on them, building an enclosure over them rather than using the traditional cocooning method.

In 2015 the work to get the sludge away from the Columbia River had fallen behind schedule and the Environmental Protection Agency, a Hanford regulator, was fining DOE $10,000 a week.

EPA agreed to cap the fine at $125,000 after an agreement between DOE and EPA was reached on new and realistic deadlines for the project in the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement.

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CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company employees Shay DeWitt (left) and Mike Garza (right) celebrate the first transfer of sludge from the 100 K West Basin to a container for storage on Hanford’s Central Plateau.

The deadline to get the sludge moved to dry storage by the end of this year was set then.

Other deadlines that DOE now will work to meet including having the K West Reactor Basin demolished and removed by September 2023 and soil cleanup under the basin starts shortly after that.

By September 2024 both reactors must also be in safe storage to meet Tri-Party Agreement deadlines.

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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.