Energy Secretary Perry is back at Hanford. This time to celebrate

Energy Secretary Rick Perry is making his second visit to Hanford since being sworn in to lead the Energy Department more than two years ago.

Tuesday morning he’ll be at the nuclear reservation just north of Richland to celebrate the completion of a 25-year project to protect the Columbia River.

His first visit, in August 2017 just months after becoming energy secretary, fulfilled a confirmation promise to visit Hanford, and gave him a chance to see the environmental cleanup at the site for the first time.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry in August 2017 toured the HAMMER training center at Hanford, which is operated by Mission Support Alliance, and watches a respirator demonstration. File Tri-City Herald

On his Oct. 1 visit he’s expected to spend several hours at the site, congratulating Hanford workers for moving highly radioactive sludge from underwater storage not far from the Columbia River to dry storage in central Hanford.

The move reduced the risk to the river from a possible leak from the K West Basin, which went into service in 1955.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.; Rep Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Paul Dabbar, the DOE under secretary for science, are expected to attend the ceremony.

TRIDEC urges DOE support

“The community wants Hanford cleaned up as quickly, safely and effectively as possible,” said David Reeploeg, vice president for federal programs for the Tri-City Development Council, in advance of Perry’s visit to Hanford.

The Tri-Cities community appreciates his interest in Hanford cleanup, he said. But TRIDEC also is hoping that Perry also is looking to the economic future of the Tri-Cities.

More than 9,300 work at Hanford and another 4,400 with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“The Tri-Cities is a growing, vibrant community that is eager to leverage our highly skilled workforce, along with our local scientific and engineering expertise, to pursue new opportunities,” Reeploeg said.

TRIDEC is hoping that the community continues to have a good partner in DOE on issues that include Hanford cleanup and future Hanford land use and the growth of PNNL, DOE’s national lab in the Tri-Cities, Reeploeg said.

“The relationship between DOE and the Tri-City community has grown and strengthened over the years, which has been beneficial to everyone involved,” he said.

TRIDEC is depending on DOE to continue to support local economic diversification efforts.

Secretary to tour projects

Perry also is expected to visit a mock-up of the 324 Building during a lesson on safety and nuclear waste cleanup for high school students studying science at Tri-City-area high schools.

The mock-up is being used to test equipment and procedures for cleaning up a highly radioactive spill of cesium and strontium beneath a building just north of Richland and about 1,000 feet from the Columbia River.

Hanford officials say the spill is so radioactively hot that it would be lethal within two minutes of contact.

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Courtesy Department of Energy

The building, built in the mid-1960s and operated until 1996, housed thick-walled rooms called “hot cells,” where workers used remotely operated equipment to perform work with highly radioactive materials.

Perry may also visit the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, or vitrification plant, under construction to turn much of 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form for disposal.

DOE faces a court-enforced deadline to start treating some of the least radioactive tank waste by 2023. The plant has been under construction since 2002.

Hanford in Eastern Washington operated from World War II through the Cold War, producing nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Perry: Sludge project a success

Environmental cleanup has been underway since an agreement among DOE and Hanford regulators was reached in 1989. About $170 billion has been spent on cleanup to date and the most recent DOE estimates put remaining cleanup at $323 billion to $677 billion.

When Perry 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.”

Getting the K Basin sludge away from the river 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, he told the Tri-City Herald in September after the last sludge was moved.

A cask holding radioactive sludge is loaded for the drive to central Hanford to be placed in dry storage. The final shipment was made in September. Courtesy Department of Energy

Workers moved the sludge from underwater containers to dry storage in a former processing plant in central Hanford with thick concrete walls to shield against radiation.

Work to reduce the risk from the K Basin sludge starting in 1994.

When the decision to stop production plutonium at Hanford was made in the late 1980s, more than 100,000 uranium fuel rods and rod fragments had been irradiated and remained at Hanford’s N Reactor. The Cold War ended without the fuel being chemically processed to remove plutonium.

Instead, the fuel was moved to what was supposed to be temporary storage in the fuel cooling basins of the K East and K West reactor basins. The basins had been built in the 1950s with plans to use them for just 20 years.

As the fuel rods deteriorated in the two basins, highly radioactive sludge formed from from corrosion particles and wind-blown sand.

The last of the fuel was not removed until 2004 from the two basins. Then work began to vacuum off the sludge that had accumulated on the floors of the basins for underwater storage.

About 35 cubic yards of sludge from both basins was consolidated in underwater containers in the K West Basin by the end of 2007.

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Workers in protective gear inside the K West Reactor Basin at Hanford in June 2018start the first transfer of radioactive sludge from the basin into containers for shipment and storage at T Plant in central Hanford. Courtesy Department of Energy

DOE contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. started preparations a decade ago to move the sludge to dry storage, with most of the time spent making extensive and careful preparations.

Workers tested custom-made equipment at a mock-up of the basin and repeatedly practiced sludge transfers before the first shipment was made about 14 months ago from the K West Basin to T Plant in central Hanford.

The sludge will be stored at T Plant while plans are made to treat the sludge for disposal.

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.