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Hanford plutonium plant demolition deadline extended

By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

The Department of Energy has been given an extra year to tear down the Hanford Plutonium Finishing Plant.

With demolition of the large central facility of the plant yet to begin, it is clear that DOE could not meet a legally binding deadline to have the plant torn down to slab on grade by the end of September.

The new Tri-Party Agreement deadline requires the plant to be demolished by Sept. 30, 2017.

Finishing the project will remove a significant hazard to the Hanford workforce, the public and the environment, said Stacy Charboneau, manager of the DOE Richland Operations Office, in a message to employees Thursday.

The new deadline has been agreed to by DOE and its regulators, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Demolition had been planned to begin in spring of this year to meet the former deadline.

Now it could start as soon as late August, according to DOE. The start is dependent on a readiness assessment planned for August by DOE and its contractor, CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. An independent team will assess whether the project is ready for the start of demolition.

The number of crews performing the highest hazard work simultaneously was reduced so that the most experienced and skilled workers could be consolidated to focus on this work.

The previous deadline to have the plant torn down to the ground was set in 2002.

The Plutonium Finishing Plant is the most hazardous building at the Hanford nuclear reservation, and the largest and most complex plutonium facility in the DOE complex, according to DOE.

The plant operated from 1948 to 1989 to turn plutonium that came into the plant in a liquid solution into buttons the size of hockey pucks or a powder to be shipped to the nation’s weapons production facilities. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium was prepared in the building.

Work has been underway to clean out the plant for 20 years, with stabilization of plutonium left in the plant in a liquid solution at the end of the Cold War. About 20 tons of plutonium-bearing material were stabilized, packaged and shipped off site.

Work started in 2008 to remove long, skinny “pencil tanks” hanging in the plant’s Plutonium Reclamation Facility. The facility had been added to the plant in 1963 to increase production of plutonium by recovering plutonium from scrap material that otherwise would have gone to waste.

But the remotely operated crane needed to maneuver the tanks was showing its age. Work repeatedly stopped to repair the crane, which was original to the facility and in a highly contaminated area. The last of the pencil tanks was finally removed in the spring of 2015.

Some of the most hazardous jobs to prepare for demolition were left until last, and work was deliberately slowed on them this year.

“The number of crews performing the highest-hazard work simultaneously was reduced so that the most experienced and skilled workers could be consolidated to focus on this work,” Charboneau said.

The final tough projects have included preparing the Plutonium Reclamation Facility and the Americium Recovery Facility, which includes the McCluskey Room, for demolition. Worker Harold McCluskey came to be known as the “atomic man” after he was injured when a glove box exploded in the Americium Recovery Facility in 1976.

All but four glove boxes, which are in the Plutonium Reclamation Facility, have either been removed or decontaminated for removal during demolition. When cleanup began, the plant had 238 glove boxes, in which workers would reach their hands through attached gloves to do work with radioactive material within the boxes.

The last remaining work includes cleaning out those glove boxes, plus applying some fixative and cleaning out contaminated piping and duct work elsewhere in the plant.

Demolition of the plant will be done carefully, with the building pulled apart piece by piece according to a structural engineering plan.

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