Critics who say no progress is being made on environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation likely have not been to the 300 Area.
It was a major industrial complex for the site, making the uranium fuel that would be sent to the 100 Area reactors for irradiation and then to the 200 Area processing plants for the plutonium to be separated out. It also was used for research, with much of the work conducted elsewhere at Hanford tested first in the 300 Area.
Sixteen years after cleanup work began there is only a handful of building still standing. Located along Stevens Drive just north of Richland, it’s the most publicly visible sign of progress at the nuclear reservation.
The six research reactors that operated there are gone.
Some 209 structures, ranging from sheds to a contaminated building larger that a football field, have come down inside the fence of the 300 Area industrial park. Workers have cleaned up 312 waste sites, including burial grounds with drums of chemical and radioactive waste and, in one case, a safe with a jug filled with plutonium-laced liquid.
The 51 acres of dirt laid bare by heavy equipment has been seeded with native vegetation that will come up in the spring.
“The progress in the 300 Area has been incredible, with the amount of work that has been done to eliminate hazards close to the Columbia River and city of Richland,” said Stacy Charboneau, manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office.
Bulk of cleanup completed
Workers haven’t quite put a period on the end of 300 Area cleanup. A couple of essential, longer term projects will continue in the coming years.
But this fall, most of the planned cleanup of the 1,700-acre industrial center was wrapped up and the cleanup focus has moved on to other areas.
“DOE and the contractors knew what they needed to do. Building by building, waste site by waste site, they plowed through,” said Dennis Faulk, Hanford program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency.
There’s been talk within the DOE cleanup complex in recent years of zeroing in on the highest risk projects.
“But there is something to be said for finishing work, for getting it done and declaring victory,” Faulk said. “I think that’s what’s been done in the 300 Area.”
Contaminated soil and debris have been hauled out to central Hanford to be buried in a lined landfill for chemical and low-level radioactive waste far from the city of Richland and the Columbia River.
“It totally mitigates the environmental concerns. It takes it off the table,” said Dan Elkins, the 300 Area project manager for Washington Closure Hanford, the contractor that has been doing environmental cleanup work there for the past decade.
Buildings with hazardous contamination, some built as early as World War II, deteriorated over the decades. They once were vulnerable to intrusion by birds and rodents that potentially could spread radioactive or other hazardous contamination. Soil contamination posed a threat to the groundwater that migrates toward the Columbia River.
Future of area
The future of the 300 Area, as laid out in a DOE land use document, calls for it to continue to be used as an industrial area. But as the city of Richland grows north along the riverfront, “leave it to the eye of the beholder what it could be,” Faulk said
The area still has a couple of buildings that serve the Hanford nuclear reservation, including a new records repository and a fire station. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory also continues to conduct research in a few buildings, including a newer laboratory on the Columbia River.
Once those buildings are no longer needed, some contamination near underground utilities that serve those buildings will be dug up.
Other remaining cleanup includes a debris burial ground that’s technically part of the 300 Area, but across Stevens Drive from the industrial complex. Work also continues to address uranium contamination in groundwater near the Columbia River.
One of the area’s most challenging cleanup projects, the 324 Building, remains. Much of the work to clean out the contaminated hot cells that stand up to three stories high had been completed when a spill of high level radioactive waste was discovered beneath the building.
The shell of the building has been left standing to shield the radiation and keep precipitation from spreading contamination deeper into the ground. Cleanup is expected to go forward as money becomes available in the next few years.
Cleanup lessons learned
But with cleanup wrapping up for now, the change in the 300 Area is “actually kind of disorienting,” said Mark French, Department of Energy project director for Hanford cleanup near the Columbia River. When workers make the familiar drive into the area at what was Cypress Street where the badge house used to stand, the site is bare other than a building used by PNNL in the background, he said.
Lessons learned at the 300 Area will be used as extensive cleanup elsewhere at Hanford continues.
“While the state is encouraged by the accomplishments in the 300 Area, some very serious and complex challenges remain to be addressed,” said Jane Hedges, Washington state’s nuclear waste program manager.
One successful strategy in the 300 Area was adopting a bias for action to move cleanup along to completion, even though Hanford officials were not sure just what they were getting into when they began cleanup there in 1999.
They thought “let’s not study this forever,” French said. “We know we have got cleanup to do and we know we need to do it urgently because we have releases to the environment.”
Another successful strategy was searching out specialty subcontractors for key projects, such as explosive demolition experts to quickly bring down some structures and a heavy lift crane company to raise reactors from their underground structures, French said.
Elkins said having the right people asking the right questions contributed to success. Questions asked about how the 324 Building was constructed led to the discovery of the high level spill beneath it before the building was torn down, exposing the site.
Keeping an open mind and listening to input from all workers “pays big dividends in the end,” he said.
History of the Hanford 300 Area cleanup
The first Superfund cleanup at Hanford began in the 300 Area in the cold days of late February.
Workers went after about 100 drums buried within a mile of the Columbia River, starting in winter because of fear the contents might be flammable. They contained an organic solvent called hexone, with traces of uranium. Some drums still held liquids, but others had disintegrated. “They were in pretty bad shape,” said Wayne Johnson, a Hanford contractor manager, after the initial drums were uncovered.
A total of 574 billets of uranium stored at the 300 Area were shipped from Hanford to a British Nuclear Fuels Limited plant in Sellafield, England. The billets, 420-pound cylinders of uranium, were destined to be made into fuel for Hanford’s N Reactor before it stopped operating. More billets and fuel assemblies fabricated for Hanford reactors were shipped to Portsmouth, Ohio, starting in mid-2000 or prepared for storage in central Hanford.
Excavation work stops because then-contractor Bechtel Hanford suspects uranium shavings might be inside oil-filled barrels dug up just north of the 300 Area. The contents posed a risk of spontaneously igniting if exposed to air. Two years later a massive wildfire swept across Hanford, just missing the area where 300 of the excavated drums were sitting. A total of 786 of the drums were excavated over five years, the majority containing uranium chips and oil.
The first 300 Area building is leveled. Building 303K was a small structure used mostly to store uranium.
Surprises were turning up in Hanford 300 Area burial grounds. A closed safe containing a gallon-sized glass jug of plutonium-laced liquid was unearthed. Research at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory would trace its origins through nuclear archaeology to the first batch of weapons-grade materials processed at Hanford. It was the second oldest known man-made plutonium 239, with the oldest held in the Smithsonian.
A Hanford worker fell 50 feet through an open hatch on a the catwalk of a building being prepared for demolition to the floor below. He survived with serious injuries. Washington Closure was cited for violations of fall protection and ladder safety but praised for the changes it then made to safety practices.
In the early morning hours of October 9, 2010, three structures at Hanford’s 300 Area came crashing to the ground. The explosive demolition of the 309 Building stack, 337 Building and 337B Building capped months of work by Washington Closure. The stack was 110 feet tall, the 337B Building was 93 feet tall and the 337 Building was three stories tall.
Also that year, workers discovered a spill of highly radioactive waste beneath the 324 Building, halting plans for its demolition. Readings of up to 12,000 rad per hour were collected. The building will be demolished after the spill is dug up from inside it.
A Hanford landmark, the iconic gray dome above the Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor, was cut from the the concrete and steel circular walls on which it sat and was lowered to the ground.
Years of cleanup work on the 308 Building complex culminated with the Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics, or TRIGA, reactor taking a slow ride out to the central Hanford lined landfill. It has been lifted out of what had been the basement of the 308A Building with a gantry crane.
The 308 Building, covering 71,000 square feet, had housed 52 glove boxes, each up to 12 feet long, where workers would look through windows and reach into ports with attached gloves to do work with radioactive materials. The glove boxes, heavily contaminated with plutonium, had to be cleaned out before the building was demolished. The building also was known as the Fuels Development Building.
The Hanford 340 Vault was lifted out of the ground near the Columbia River and loaded onto a heavy-haul trailer with hundreds of wheels to distribute its weight to be hauled to the central Hanford landfill. The vault, which weighed about 1,100 tons, was once used to hold two tanks that collected highly radioactive liquid through a system of underground pipes from labs, test reactors and other 300 Area facilities.
The concrete pad that once held the underground Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor was buried in place and the ground above it was reseeded. The test reactor, the largest and last of the six reactors used for research at the 300 Area, had been lifted from the ground in 2014. Then an explosion was used to help turn much of the below-ground concrete structure, with walls as thick of 13 feet, into rubble.
As buildings were demolished through the years, the metal signs that once showed the numbers of each building in the 300 Area were hung along the Stevens Drive fence. The signs were collected in 2015 and saved as part of the Hanford historical artifacts collection.