Energy Secretary tells Hanford workers their cleanup work is making the Northwest safer

Energy Secretary Rick Perry promised to return when he made his first visit to Hanford in 2017, just months after being sworn in.

Tuesday he was back to congratulate workers at the nuclear reservation on completing important work that protects the Northwest environment and to remind the region that environmental cleanup work is getting done.

The latest accomplishment was getting 35 cubic yards of highly radioactive sludge out of underwater storage in a 64-year-old concrete basin.

Over 14 months it was moved to safer dry storage in central Hanford until it can be treated for permanent disposal.

“This takes a risk away from the Columbia River and this community,” Perry said at a ceremony at the nuclear reservation attended by about 200 Hanford workers, community leaders, Hanford regulators and news media.

He also toured historic B Reactor, got an update on the $17 billion vitrification plant and chatted with high school students visiting a clean mock-up being used for training and developing equipment for another challenging Hanford project.

At a brief news conference, he said he could offer no news about new contract awards at Hanford until official announcements are made.

DOE is preparing to award new 10-year contracts worth up to a combined $33 billion, as existing support service, tank waste management and central Hanford cleanup contracts expire. The support services contract expires next month, and the other two contracts have been extended until as late as September 2020.

Rick Perry KBasin stage
Energy Secretary Rick Perry speaks Tuesday at the gathering to congratulate Hanford workers for the completion of moving radioactive sludge from underwater storage at the K reactor area to dry storage in central Hanford. The 25-year cleanup project helps protect the Columbia River. Seated to the right of Perry is Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. Watch a video at: tricityherald.com/video Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

He reaffirmed that DOE has no immediate plans to use a new policy that could allow it to determine certain waste is low level rather than high level radioactive waste at Hanford. Initially, the policy will be applied at its Savannah River, S.C., weapons cleanup site.

But the reason for his visit was to celebrate the successful sludge transfer project.

Sludge transfer under budget

Not only was it done under budget and ahead of schedule — at least the latest schedule — but it will cut Hanford overhead costs, Perry pointed out.

The sludge had been stored in 17 feet of water in the fuel cooling basin of the K West Reactor about 400 yards from the Columbia River. The cooling basin of the nearby K East Reactor, which also held sludge before it was consolidated in the K West basin, had leaked in the past.

The sludge was a potential environmental disaster for the Northwest, of particular concern to those who live downriver, said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. Walden and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., accompanied Perry and other DOE officials on their Hanford visit Tuesday.

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Courtesy Department of Energy

“Due to the efforts of the Hanford workforce, the Columbia River is safer this week,” Newhouse said. “That truly is something for all of us to celebrate.”

The sludge was created as irradiated fuel was stored in the cooling basins of the two reactors at the end of the Cold War rather than processing it to remove plutonium. The 580-square-mile Hanford site in Eastern Washington produced nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

The fuel deteriorated and mixed with windblown desert sand to create sludge before the fuel was removed in a multi-year effort completed in 2004.

By 2007 the sludge had been consolidated in underwater containers and moved to the K West Basin, where water continued to provide shielding from radiation.

Other Hanford cleanup progress

That cleared the way for extensive planning, equipment development and practice by workers at a mock-up facility off Hanford, ending 10 years later with the last shipment of sludge to dry storage at T Plant in central Hanford on Sept. 9.

The project required a new building, the sludge annex, to be built to transfer the highly radioactive sludge to shipping and storage containers staged on the back of flatbed trucks. The annex was built for $290 million, or $21 million under budget.

The Environmental Protection Agency, a Hanford regulator, had been fining DOE $10,000 a week in 2015 because it had fallen behind on the project. Then a new and more realistic deadline was set requiring DOE to have the sludge in dry storage by the end of this year.

The transfer of the sludge that started in June 2018 was expected to cost about $23 million, but about $4 million was saved when it was completed months before the end of the year.

But the bigger savings will be in the $25 million annual surveillance and maintenance costs required when the sludge was in underwater storage.

Getting the sludge out of the K West Basin also clears the way to drain the basin and complete most of the environmental cleanup around the two reactors and then “cocoon” or put the reactors in long-term storage. They will remain in storage for up to 75 years as some of the radioactivity in their core decays to lower levels.

“This is difficult work we are doing,” Perry said about remaining environmental cleanup, adding that there will be more hurdles ahead.

“But I hope today is confirmation that the government can do what it says it is going to do and do it in a reasonable way,” he said.

Rick Perry student
Energy Secretary Rick Perry looks over the shoulder of Chiawana High STEM student Geovanni Beltran as he manipulates a remote-operated arm Tuesday at the contamination-free mock-up of Hanford’s 324 Building in Richland. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Perry and other speakers pointed out that since the end of the Cold War, 20 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater at Hanford have been treated, nearly 900 facilities have been demolished and more than 1,000 waste sites have been cleaned up.

Major projects remain, including the need to treat 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks and dispose of it. The $17 billion vitrification plant is expected to start treating some of the least radioactive tank waste in 2023, after construction began on the plant in 2002.

Hanford B Reactor makes impression

Among its many other remaining cleanup projects, Hanford also has a highly radioactive spill beneath a former researcher facility, the 324 Building, just north of Richland along the Columbia River.

Perry toured a mock-up of the facility near Hanford on a day that students from Chiawana High School in Pasco were visiting, learning about Hanford and career opportunities there. The mock-up, which is in Richland and has no radioactive or other contamination, is being used to develop and test equipment and to train workers for cleanup of the spill.

After a private tour of Hanford’s historic B Reactor Tuesday morning, Perry marveled that the world’s first production-scale reactor was built in 11 months as the nation raced to produce nuclear weapons before the Nazis in WWII.

“It was a shining moment in time for our country,” he said. “It’s a great reflection of who we are as a people to be able to do that incredibly difficult, technologically advanced work.”

The reactor is now part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and open for free public tours by bus spring through fall.

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.