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Regulators to DOE: No more Hanford demolition until we say it’s safe

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 12, 2018

In this May 9, 2017, file photo, an emergency sign flashes outside the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. Radiation warning alarms sounded about 7 a.m., Thursday, June 8, 2017, outside the Plutonium Finishing Plant, prompting about 350 workers at the Reservation to seek cover indoors. (Manuel Valdes / AP)
In this May 9, 2017, file photo, an emergency sign flashes outside the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. Radiation warning alarms sounded about 7 a.m., Thursday, June 8, 2017, outside the Plutonium Finishing Plant, prompting about 350 workers at the Reservation to seek cover indoors. (Manuel Valdes / AP)
By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

Hanford regulators have ordered the Department of Energy not to restart demolition of the nuclear reservation’s highly radioactively contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant until regulators agree the work can be done safely.

Demolition was stopped at the plant in mid-December, after specks of radioactive contamination were discovered to have spread outside of a containment zone established around demolition work.

There is no estimate of when demolition of the plant may restart.

The Washington State Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency notified DOE this week that they would use their authority under the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement to prevent a restart of work if they have concerns about the safety of the public or workers.

The Department of Ecology’s concerns have been growing as more is learned about the extent of the spread of radioactive contamination, said Alex Smith, manager of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program.

As recently as Jan. 3, more contamination was detected inside the radiological control area of the plant, indicating that the spread of contamination has not yet been controlled, EPA and Ecology officials said in a letter to DOE this week.

The contamination was found even though a pile of demolition rubble at the plant’s Plutonium Reclamation Facility was covered with fixative and soil multiple times, Ecology officials said.

Although the investigation of the contamination spread is continuing, the suspected source is the pile of rubble left from demolition of the Plutonium Reclamation Facility. The spread of contamination was found just hours after its demolition using heavy equipment was completed.

The facility was expected to be the most hazardous demolition work to be done at the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The facility, added to one end of the plant, was contaminated with plutonium that easily becomes airborne.

The halt to work covers both loading out rubble for disposal and the demolition of the remainder of the finishing plant.

Part of the plant that had the main plutonium processing lines remains standing. Plutonium came into the plant in a liquid solution and was formed into pucks and powder for shipment to the nation’s nuclear weapons production plants during the Cold War.

“We’re not going to go ahead until we are sure we can do it without another release,” Tom Teynor, DOE project director for the plant, said at a Hanford Advisory Board committee meeting Tuesday.

This week, in an abundance of caution, the control zone around the demolition project was expanded to include roughly eight times more area.

It includes not only the Plutonium Finishing Plant campus, but the U, TX and TY tank farms storing radioactive waste in underground tanks, and U Plant, one of five large processing facilities built at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The access control area now includes several streets, including parts of 18th Street, Camden Avenue and Bridgeport Avenue, which are closed to traffic. Many specks of contamination had been found across Camden Street from the plant campus.

Access to other projects in the area must be approved by finishing plant officials, and no private vehicles are allowed. Instead, workers are driving government vehicles into work sites or are parking a mile away at the 200 West Pump and Treat facility and being shuttled to the plant in government vehicles.

By the latest figures, 16 government or contractor vehicles were found with specks of contamination, along with seven private vehicles. Surveying of government vehicles continues.

The private vehicle contamination was found in December – all on the exterior of the vehicles. No contamination was found at the homes of the seven workers.

The number of Hanford workers requesting checks to determine if they may have inhaled or ingested airborne specks of radioactive material had climbed to 269 by the end of the work week.

CH2M Plateau Remediation Co., the DOE contractor demolishing the plant, is bringing in corporate expertise as it studies the cause of the contamination spread to develop a plan to correct shortcomings before work resumes.

Doug Shoop, the manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office, is putting together a panel of independent experts to review the findings of the investigation and evaluate proposed actions to prevent another spread when demolition and load out work resumes.

The remaining demolition work is not expected to be as hazardous as the plant’s reclamation facility, but still includes some highly contaminated areas.

The Department of Ecology has asked to sit in on the expert panel discussions.

“We take this very seriously,” Teynor said. “The release was inexcusable. We are doing everything in our power to prevent it from happening again.”

Work this week has included adding soil to areas where specks of contamination were spread and applying fixative to contain any possible contamination, including to the roofs of buildings that support the demolition project.

With the plant taking longer to demolish than anticipated, more money will have to be found in the current fiscal year budget for the project.

That should not be a problem because the project is a priority, Teynor said.

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