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State, feds are extending Hanford cleanup deadlines

The B reactor complex, operating in the 1940s, was the earliest facility to turn out large amounts of waste at Hanford. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons

B Cell used to be the most dangerous room at the Hanford nuclear reservation. Step inside the three-story-tall chamber's concrete walls filled with nuclear junk without wearing a protective suit for two seconds, and you'd receive a fatal dose of radiation.

The chamber is part of an old nuclear laboratory — dubbed the "324 Building" — a  quarter-mile from Richland's city limits and the Columbia River. Two years ago, a big spike of radioactivity was found in the soil beneath the building. It was traced to an earlier leak from the B Cell, which had already been cleaned up before the soil contamination was discovered.

That extra contamination in the soil is on the brink of having the state and federal governments agree to delay the completion of environmental cleanup at the 324 Building site in Hanford from Sept. 30, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2018.

The U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Ecology want to extend the legal deadline to clean up the immediate area containing B Cell under the Tri-Party Agreement. The Tri-Party Agreement is a legal contract among the three agencies to govern Hanford's cleanup for the next few decades. The three agencies are seeking public comments on their plans to extend the legal deadlines for several Hanford cleanup projects.

"We wouldn't be proposing these unless all three agencies had already agreed to them," said David Einan, an official at the EPA's Hanford office.

John Price, the state Ecology Department's manager for the Tri-Party Agreement, said, "This is good because taking longer ensures that everything (in the targeted cleanup projects) will be taken care of properly."

People  wanting to submit comments on the proposed delays can contact Tifany Nguyen at DOE's Richland office at prior to Jan. 24, 2013.

The leakage from B Cell is by far the most dangerous of the projects facing the new delays in terms of radioactivity, Price said. However, other Hanford problems — huge leaking underground waste tanks, a troubled waste glassification plant, a former plutonium storage complex, and several ground water contamination sites  — dwarf this list in terms of danger.

Here is a rundown of the other to-be-delayed projects:

  • More studies would be conducted along the Columbia River's southern shoreline in Hanford to get a better handle on ground water contamination before future extra fix-it measures are tackled. The current completion date for some ground water fix-it projects is today (Dec. 31, 2012). The three agencies propose extending them to March 31, 2017.

This shoreline contains nine partly cleaned-up area that hold nine defunct Cold War plutonium-production reactors plus the 300 Area next to Richland. The 300 Area is a few square miles of old labs including the 324 Building and B Cell. The recent discovery of 154 relatively small waste sites along the shore prompts the delays, which is a good sign to Price because it means previously unknown contamination problems won't be missed by the cleanup work. The biggest known ground water problems have already been tackled over many years.

The biggest individual new problem has been extra chromium contamination in the ground around B Reactor and C Reactor, which are the most upstream of the nine reactors. Chromium is not radioactive. But it can bubble up through salmon nests — dubbed "redds" —  to kill infant salmon before the chemical gets quickly dispersed in the volume of the Columbia. However, the nearest clusters of redds are just upstream of B Reactor and a couple miles downstream of C Reactor.

  • The "cocooning" of the K East and K West reactors would be delayed from 2014 and 2019 to both being completed in 2019. "Cocooning" is the demolition of the reactors' outlying buildings and hauling away the debris, while sealing up the main reactor chamber for several decades until the radioactivity subsides. Six of Hanford's nine defunct reactors have been"cocooned."

B, K East and K West are the only remaining uncocooned reactors. B Reactor— the world's first industrial-size reactor, which created the plutonium for Trinity and Nagaskai atomic bombs in World War II — will be kept intact as a national monument.

  • Hanford has fivebattleship-size defunct chemical processing plants that extracted plutonium from irradiated reactor rods. The first to be tackled is U Plant, which will have cement poured among some radioactive  processing equipment, have debris stored in its cavernous main chamber, and then have the walls caved in. Then an earthen barrier will cover it as a cap. U Plant's work is supposed to be done by 2022.

The work on the remaining four plants — dubbed "canyons" because of the massive main chambers running the lengths of the buildings — will be delayed until the U Plant work is done in order to learn lessons from that work. The work on the "canyons" has always been a low-priority in Hanford's cleanup tasks.

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