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Heavy security part of Hanford plant’s past

Facility no longer has weapons-grade nuclear material

A sign greets visitors to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland. The federal government spends roughly $2 billion each year cleaning up the site.  (Associated Press)
A sign greets visitors to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland. The federal government spends roughly $2 billion each year cleaning up the site. (Associated Press)
Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

HANFORD, Wash. – The Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford has lost much of its sinister look.

Metal detectors, razor wire, guns and dogs have become part of its past.

Once the most secure area at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the plant has been stripped of its high-security features since the last weapons-grade material was removed late last year.

“The security was part of daily life at PFP, and it’s been a big change to have it gone,” Bob Heineman, CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co.’s recovery act project manager for the plant, said in a statement.

“Seeing people walk right through where razor wire once guarded the facility takes some getting used to, but it’s great to be moving forward with the cleanup mission.”

The inner chain-link fence topped with razor wire has come down. The hardened fighting positions – short, round concrete structures with narrow slits – have been gathered up.

A double row of Jersey barriers with rock and gravel filled between them has been removed, as has the ecology block vehicle barrier added for extra security after 9/11. It stretched for a mile and a half.

Some of the first security features to be removed were the X-ray machines and metal detectors where workers and their belongings were screened as they entered the building each morning.

Also gone are five inspection stations, most manned by patrol officers.

Vehicles used to have to pass through a search area where they were checked for explosives. It was a job initially done by trained dogs, but in later years a machine was used to take swabs, said Rick Wilbanks, CH2M Hill’s decommissioning and demolition manager for the plant.

Dogs also were used inside the plant for random checks for ammunition or explosives.

The plant was the last stop in plutonium production at Hanford from 1949-’89, and two-thirds of the plutonium used in the nation’s nuclear weapons program came through the plant.

Fuel was irradiated at Hanford reactors, the plutonium was separated from the fuel at processing plants and then it was formed into metal buttons the size of hockey pucks at the Plutonium Finishing Plant to be shipped off-site for conversion to weapons use.

Wilbanks, who worked as a nuclear chemical operator for the first few of his 25 years at the plant, remembers the drill when he needed to go into the vaults, where plutonium was stored.

Workers going to the backside of the plant where the production lines and vaults were located had to pass through a second set of metal detectors. Then to get into the vaults, he had to call the central alarm station.

It would send a patrolman toting a gun who would ask for a secret code and then check his identity before he could enter the vault area.

Despite the high security, the staff at the plant were known at Hanford as a tight-knit group.

“A lot of things we did we could not discuss with our families,” Wilbanks said. “There was a special bond because we all had clearance. We could talk about it with each other.”

The new era at the plant is bittersweet, he said.

But workers continue to do important work – “we’re in the safety business” as Wilbanks described it.

They’re working to remove equipment from the plant – including contaminated glove boxes – and have it torn down to slabs on the ground by 2013. That’s three years ahead of the legal requirement to have it down by 2016.

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