More safety issues identified at Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant

A field work team prepares to enter the Americium Recovery Facility in March 2015.
A field work team prepares to enter the Americium Recovery Facility in March 2015. DOE

A new management team has been assigned to Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant and work will be slowed there after continuing safety problems.

In January, another piece of radioactively contaminated respiratory equipment was sent from the plant to a Hanford fire station. Four pieces of contaminated equipment had been sent there earlier this winter.

In another incident in late December, workers discovered radioactive contamination had spread into a control room. A bioassay of one of the employees who had been in the control room was positive, indicating a very small amount of radioactive contamination in his body, according to CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co.

The recent incidents were in addition to at least seven incidents of skin or clothing contamination recorded at the plant between summer and November. It was subsequently discovered that contaminated equipment had been sent from the plant not only to a Hanford fire station, but off Hanford to locations in three states.

One Hanford firefighter tested positive for internal radioactive contamination at a very low level.

Safety issues began in the summer when workers started tackling some of the most difficult work to prepare the Plutonium Finishing Plant for demolition.

The mission is critical, but not at the risk of safety.

John Ciucci, CH2M Hill president

It was used during the Cold War to convert plutonium in a liquid solution into solid pucks that would be shipped offsite for possible use in the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

The plant also did special projects, such as reclaiming plutonium from scrap metal to increase Hanford’s plutonium production and recovering americium from radioactive waste material for possible industrial use.

The Plutonium Finishing Plant is the most hazardous Hanford facility to be demolished, Department of Energy officials have said.

Work has been under way to clean out the plant since the 1990s, when efforts began to stabilize plutonium in liquid solutions left at the plant at the end of the Cold War. In recent years, workers have been cleaning out and removing tanks and contaminated glove boxes.

The goal has been to start tearing down the main processing buildings of the plant this spring to meet a legal deadline to have the plant torn down by September.

But last week, John Ciucci, president of CH2M Hill, said in a memo to employees, “The mission is critical, but not at the risk of safety.”

“Over the past few months, we’ve experienced a number of safety-related events that, while they didn’t cause any serious injury, are unacceptable,” he said.

A long list of measures to improve safety have been implemented, not just at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, but across the contractor’s Hanford projects, he said.

The safety risks are too high to continue three high-hazard supplied breathing jobs in parallel.

John Ciucci, CH2M Hill president

As part of the safety measures, he has assigned a new leadership team to the plant.

Tom Bratvold has been named acting vice president of work at the Plutonium Finishing Plant because of his Hanford experience and leadership in radiological control and safety, Ciucci said. Kelly Wooley will serve as deputy vice president and Tim Oten as director of engineering.

The schedule for completing cleanup of the plant is being changed to allow attention to be focused on the hazards of each phase of work and to provide higher confidence in preparations for demolition of the plant, he said. The goal is zero safety incidents through plant demolition.

“The safety risks are too high to continue three high-hazard supplied breathing jobs in parallel,” Ciucci said in the memo.

The final high-hazard projects, all requiring workers to use supplied-air respirators, include cutting up and removing the largest and most heavily contaminated glove box at the plant. Workers would look through leaded glass windows and reach their hands through portals with attached gloves to do work with radiological material inside the glove box.

In addition, the plant’s Plutonium Reclamation Facility canyon, a tall area where skinny tanks for plutonium hung on the walls, is being decontaminated.

The third project is in the Americium Recovery Facility, where work still must be done in the tank room next to the McCluskey Room.

Six workers who had been in the control room next to the glove box requested testing. One test of four completed is positive.

The most recent worker contamination incident stemmed from work at the oversized glove box. Three employees questioned whether an adjoining deactivated control room should be surveyed for radioactive contamination. Contamination was detected on the door Dec. 22.

As a result, six employees who had been in the control room before that day requested checks. Four of the results received so far are negative and one was described by CH2M Hill as “slightly positive.”

The contaminated equipment shipped from the Plutonium Finishing Plant initially was discovered in December.

Contamination was found in cooling systems used for puffy, air-filled suits used for some work at the plant. That led to the discovery that 11 of the cooling systems had been sent outside Hanford for mechanical work in October.

They were tracked to three states, with contamination found in two of them, both in the trunk of a car belonging to a salesman for the systems in Kennewick.

Respiratory equipment and the units used to cool air inside the suits are routinely sent to the Hanford Fire Department for storage, service and repairs. A check found four of them were contaminated and all were sent back to the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

DOE planned an assessment then to look at whether standards were followed for allowing equipment to leave facilities to be sent elsewhere on and off site.

106 firefighters have requested tests for internal radioactive contamination, with one positive result to date.

On Jan. 18, another piece of contaminated equipment from the Plutonium Finishing Plant was found at a Hanford fire station. It was a regulator that, like the contaminated coolers, was used with the air-filled suits at the plant.

CH2M Hill said it further clarified expectations for radiological control with employees and leaders. It also increased oversight of survey activities to clear equipment for release from the plant.

Mission Support Alliance, the contractor in charge of the fire station, temporarily stopped work with the respiratory equipment and CH2M Hill temporarily stopped sending equipment there. Activities resumed about two weeks later.

At the Plutonium Finishing Plant, seven employees requested bioassays to check for internal contamination after the issue with contaminated coolers was discovered in December. All tests were negative, according to CH2M Hill.

At the Hanford Fire Department, 106 employees requested bioassays, although not all may have moved forward with their requests. Eighteen results have been received, with the one previously reported positive result. The test was for one of two employees who had worked most closely with the equipment at the fire station.

“We are very close to PFP demolition, but it is necessary to slow down to ensure safety during this hazardous phase,” Ciucci told employees. “Please remember the fundamental goal: safety and compliance.”

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews