The Department of Energy will not be able to meet a legally binding deadline to have Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant demolished by the end of September, but demolition might be ready to start then.
DOE is in talks with its regulators, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency, to set a new Tri-Party Agreement deadline, said DOE spokesman Mark Heeter during a media tour of the nuclear reservation Monday.
The new deadline that DOE has proposed has not been made public.
DOE had long said that its contractor, CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co., would start tearing the main portion of the plant down in the spring of 2016 to meet the September deadline. Now it says demolition will start in the fall.
Preparing the plant for demolition has been some of the most hazardous work performed at any of DOE’s cleanup sites, say officials on the project. The plant is the largest, most complex plutonium facility in the DOE cleanup complex, and parts of it were heavily contaminated with plutonium, including a form of plutonium that easily disperses into the air.
About two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium for its nuclear weapons program came out of Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant.
The emphasis has been on doing work safely, said CH2M Hill spokesman Destry Henderson. CH2M Hill revised its work schedule about five months ago to conduct no more than one high hazard project at a time. It wanted to allow attention to be focused on the hazards of each phase of work and to provide higher confidence in preparations for disposal of the plant.
The plant was the last stop in plutonium production at Hanford for most of the Cold War. Plutonium in a liquid solution was turned into buttons the size of hockey pucks there for the nation's nuclear weapons program. About two-thirds of the nation’s supply of plutonium for its nuclear weapons program came out of the plant.
Work has been under way to clean out the plant since the 1990s, when efforts began to stabilize plutonium in a liquid solution left there at the end of the Cold War. In recent years, workers have been cleaning out and removing tanks and contaminated glove boxes.
Demolition is expected to start with the Plutonium Reclamation Facility off one end of the main production portion of the plant. The 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.
The Plutonium Reclamation Facility could start to come down this fall as work continues to prepare the main processing portion of the facility for demolition, Henderson said.
A four-phase demolition will start with the Plutonium Finishing Plant’s Plutonium Reclamation Facility and then progress to the Americium Recovery Facility, the main processing portion of the plant and then the plant’s stack.
Work is being done at the Plutonium Reclamation Facility now to clean out four remaining glove boxes on two stories at the facility where skinny “pencil” tanks were hung in a tall central area called a canyon. The pencil tanks already have been removed, and the glove boxes are the last of 238 in the plant to be either removed or to be prepared and staged for removal during demolition.
Glove boxes were designed to allow workers to reach their hands through gloves attached to portals to work with radioactive material within the boxes while looking through thick lead glass windows.
Demolition would be done next on the Americium Recovery Facility, which connects the Plutonium Reclamation Facility to the main processing portion of the plant. The Americium Recovery Facility was the site of the glove box explosion that injured Harold McCluskey, who came to be called the Atomic Man, in 1976.
The facility was used to recover americium from waste material for possible industrial or other use.
Demolition is planned to be done next on the main production portion of the plant, where duct work continues to be cleaned out. The major work of cleaning out the majority of the building’s glove boxes there has been completed.
The last piece of the building to be demolished will be its fan house and stack.
Demolition of the plant will be done carefully with the building pulled apart “piece by piece,” Heeter said. What remains of the building will be disposed of either at a central Hanford landfill for low-level radioactive waste or eventually shipped to a national repository in New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, for waste contaminated with plutonium.