Hanford

Hanford’s high-tech future: New DOE cleanup leader looks to robototics to keep next generation of workers safe

Monica Regalbuto, Department of Energy assistant secretary for environmental management, second from left, looks at some of the equipment DOE is using or exploring for use in the Hanford tank farms.
Monica Regalbuto, Department of Energy assistant secretary for environmental management, second from left, looks at some of the equipment DOE is using or exploring for use in the Hanford tank farms. Courtesy DOE

What do an astronaut and a Hanford tank farm worker have in common?

Both have to wear heavy equipment and must breath in an artificial atmosphere, said Monica Regalbuto at the conclusion of her first visit to Hanford last week as the newly confirmed head of environmental cleanup at Department of Energy sites.

She talked about her interest in developing technology — including technology that might be helpful for NASA and for Hanford — during brief remarks at a meeting of the Hanford Advisory Board and in an interview with the Herald.

DOE used to have a significant technology development program, which led to breakthroughs that have contributed to environmental cleanup, Regalbuto said.

But as cleanup projects reached the point where work could be done, technology development decreased.

“Our investments from the past, we are cashing in on,” she said.

Now Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and his advisory board are looking ahead to future technology needs as the nation faces 50 years of work to complete cleanup. The remaining work across the complex is the most difficult, Regalbuto said.

“Our goal is to use technology to allow us to reduce the cost so we can get through our mission more quickly and more expeditiously,” she said.

Technology development also is an opportunity to bring the next generation of workers into DOE projects as national laboratories and cleanup contractors face a wave of workers ready for retirement, she said.

Young people will understand why cleanup is important work and why they should be excited about working on it, she said.

Some of the technology development is being done in coordination with other DOE offices.

The DOE Office of Science is spearheading an effort using its budget to look at what DOE’s cleanup needs are so the Office of Science can develop programs to address them, she said.

In a broader effort, the DOE Office of Environmental Management, headed by Regalbuto, has joined the National Robotics Initiative, led by the White House.

“It’s a multiagency effort, but we all have similar issues,” she said. When the robotics initiative was started in 2011, one of its goals was to help astronauts in dangerous and expensive missions.

Just like astronauts wearing heavy suits and relying on air supplies, tank farm workers at Hanford now carry heavy supplied air canisters and rely on them to breath, she said.

“Our main goal is to improve safety, improve the safety of the worker, but also to improve the safety of the facility,” she said.

One of her stops during two and half days at Hanford was the HAMMER training facility, where she watched workers training to use supplied air respirators by playing miniature golf in the cumbersome gear.

Much of her visit focused on the work at Hanford other than the tank farms, where 56 million gallons of radioactive waste is held in underground tanks, and the vitrification plant under construction to treat the waste. The waste, and other contamination at Hanford, is left from World War II and Cold War production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Regalbuto made her first visit to Hanford in 1989 when she was just out of graduate school as part of her work to support tank waste programs. She also was picked by former Energy Secretary Steven Chu to join him on an expert panel that several three days at Hanford reviewing technical issues at the vitrification plant three years ago. She was confirmed as assistant secretary for environmental management last month.

Her biggest surprise on this visit to Hanford was what she did not see — many buildings along the Columbia River. In the Hanford 300 Area just north of Richland, 209 buildings and other structures have been demolished.

“If I don’t see something, it is a very good thing,” she said. “That means a lot of progress and a lot of people’s effort.”

The remaining unused building left there from Hanford’s plutonium production days, the 324 Building, continues to stand because of a spill of high-level radioactive waste beneath it.

It was “a very bad day for us” when the spill was discovered during cleanup, she said. A plan has been developed to dig up the soil using remotely operated equipment staged within the building and a mockup has been built to develop the technology.

Cleanup of the spill remains a priority, but the cost of completing cleanup of the building is higher because of the spill, she said. Proceeding with digging up the contaminants depends on the budget, and in the meantime the spill is monitored to make sure contaminants do not migrate toward groundwater, she said.

Concerns have been raised in the Tri-City community that getting adequate money for Hanford work under the DOE Richland Operations Office may be a challenge as a federal judge prepares to set new consent decree deadlines for the tank farms and vitrification plant that could require higher funding. The DOE Office of River Protection is in charge of the tanks and vit plant and the Richland Operations Office is in charge of the rest of cleanup work.

“They are two independent missions, both critically important to us,” Regalbuto said.

Both have different tasks and one will not compete against another, she said. Although much progress is visible in the land along the Columbia River, difficult projects remain near the river and in central Hanford.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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