Most hazardous Hanford plant nears start of tear down

Subcontractor employees install a fence around the Hanford Plutonium Finishing Plant to control access during demolition of the plant.
Subcontractor employees install a fence around the Hanford Plutonium Finishing Plant to control access during demolition of the plant. Courtesy photo DOE

What may be the most hazardous facility ever to be taken down by the Department of Energy in the United States could be ready for the start of demolition at Hanford in a matter of months.

The goal is to start tearing down the main processing buildings of the Hanford Plutonium Finishing Plant in the coming spring to meet a legal deadline to have the plant razed to the ground by September 2016.

The Department of Energy is at risk of missing that deadline, but work is moving forward safely to try to meet it, said Stephanie Schleif, the new facilities transition project manager for the Washington Department of Ecology.

The state is thrilled with progress, said Jane Hedges, Washington’s nuclear waste program manager.

“You can’t imagine how difficult this work is,” said Doug Shoop, DOE deputy site manager for the Richland Operations Office.

Shoop called it DOE’s most hazardous facility to be demolished during a recent meeting of the Hanford Advisory Board in Pasco.

Work has been under way to clean out the plant since the 1990s, when efforts began to stabilize liquid plutonium left there at the end of the Cold War.

In recent years, workers have been cleaning out and removing tanks and contaminated glove boxes in the plant.

To date, 95 percent of the large pieces of equipment, including glove boxes and laboratory vent hoods, have been removed. That includes the heavily contaminated glove boxes that were the site of the explosion in 1976 that contaminated worker Harold McCluskey, who came to be known as the Atomic Man.

“We have been profoundly impressed with what has been accomplished by the work force,” said Pam Larsen, a member of the Hanford Advisory Board.

The board sent a letter of congratulations Friday to DOE, thanking workers past and present who have worked on the successful decontamination and demolition of the plant.

Although the main processing buildings of the plant still are being cleaned out, 64 of 81 facilities on the Plutonium Finishing Plant campus have been demolished or removed.

“Especially, the board wishes to congratulate and recognize the outstanding accomplishments of the hands-on work force,” the letter said. “They have labored safely, hour after hour, in challenging and difficult conditions to remove the plutonium from contaminated glove boxes, the critically damaged McCluskey Room and other equipment for repackaging and off site shipment.”

Their work exemplifies “the very best of professional and technically initiated cleanup activities,” the letter said.

The Plutonium Finishing Plant was the final stop at Hanford for plutonium produced at Hanford reactors during the Cold War for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Liquid plutonium was formed into metal “buttons” the size of hockey pucks to be shipped to the country’s weapons production facilities.

The difficulties of clean-out work in areas with high contamination levels have ranged from using 50-year-old equipment — like a built-in crane that frequently broke down as it was used to move tanks contaminated with plutonium — to protective gear worn by workers that limited visibility and added to the threat of heat stress.

DOE’s motto for the work has been “steady, slow, safe progress,” Shoop said.

“That’s what is important,” he said. “We don’t need a lot more money, a lot more crews out there. We just need the same people out there finishing the job because they are very well trained and doing a very good job.”

With some of the most difficult work at the plant tackled in recent months, there has been an increase in the number of work-related injuries and radiological events this summer, the staff of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has noted.

In late July and August, there were incidences of workers’ skin becoming contaminated with radiological material. In some cases, seams failed in a new type of protective suit worn by workers, and in other cases, contamination spread as the suits were removed, the safety board staff said in its reports. The workers have been in an area where contamination is highly mobile and easily spread.

The workers’ skin was decontaminated to levels at which the radioactive material could no longer be detected, according to the safety board staff reports.

A stand down was held earlier this month to re-orient workers to thinking about safety, said Bryan Foley, DOE deputy project director for the Plutonium Finishing Plant work.

“This year was the first time in many years where we had three high-hazard jobs going on in the PFP footprint all in the same year,” he said.

They included work on two high-hazard glove boxes, work to take apart the glove boxes in the McCluskey Room and work to decontaminate the canyon floor of the Plutonium Reclamation Facility.

Workers would stand outside the glove boxes and look through heavy, leaded-glass windows as they reached their hands through gloves attached at portals to conduct work with plutonium and other radioactive materials inside.

The Plutonium Reclamation Facility was added to the plant as Cold War demand for plutonium increased. It increased output by recovering plutonium from scrap material that otherwise would have been wasted.

This spring, workers removed the last of the highly contaminated “pencil tanks” from the high-ceiling canyon area of the facility. The skinny tanks, which were hung on racks, were shaped to prevent an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.

Workers have removed or have prepared for removal 233 of the Plutonium Finishing Plant’s 238 glove boxes. Some will be taken out after the walls of the plant are pulled down around them. The remaining five still must be disconnected from the ventilation system.

Two of the high-hazard glove boxes that stand more than 12 feet high and still contain extensive contamination are being cut up inside the plant.

Remaining work before tear down of the plant includes readying the last five glove boxes, all of them along the Plutonium Reclamation Facility canyon, and grouting the canyon floor. In the main part of the plant, work is continuing to remove contaminated ventilation ducts and to deactivate the ventilation system. Asbestos removal also must be done.

The tentative plan for demolition of the large, main facility of the plant calls for starting with tearing down the Plutonium Reclamation Facility, then the Americium Recovery Facility, which includes the McCluskey Plant. Both were add-ons to the main processing facility, which would be torn down next.

Before demolition of the main plant starts, the emergency preparedness program will be checked, Shoop said.

“We want to test that system and make sure it is tiptop in the unlikely event we do have an emergency,” such as a release of radioactive material during demolition, he said.

Significant work will remain to be done after the plant is torn down to the ground, said Dennis Faulk, Hanford project director for the Environmental Protection Agency, which will be the regulator for the next phase of work.

A large number of sites where waste was released will remain on the campus, although most are expected to be small, he said. In addition, the plant’s basement will remain.

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