Basins clear of spent nuclear fuel at Hanford
The cleanup marks a milestone with the removal of the final canisters, and attention turns to sludge.
October 24, 2004
For decades, Washington housed a nuclear nightmare.
Two concrete pools by the Columbia River held more than 2,300 tons of decaying uranium reactor fuel in cracking canisters. The basins held roughly half as much radioactivity as the Chernobyl disaster released.
By Friday, officials at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation said, no fuel was left in the pools.
This week, crews finished retrieving 105,000 fuel canisters from under 20 feet of water, along with cleaning and stabilizing the material inside. The fuel -- mostly uranium with a little plutonium -- is now in dry storage in a concrete bunker nine miles from the river. It will stay there until a national storehouse for high-level nuclear fuel opens. Such a facility is planned for Nevada, but that site has stiff political opposition and may never be built.
Workers fished the first fuel canister from Hanford's basins in late 2000. The last was removed about three months behind schedule, but regulators are thrilled anyway.
"This is in some respects a monumental achievement that we're talking about today," said Nick Ceto, Hanford project manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "This material, in the condition it was in, was available potentially to leak into the groundwater, into the soil under the basins."
The question of leakage
In fact, the basins have leaked more than 15 million gallons of liquid into the soil, mostly during the 1970s. No one knows just how much radiation that put into the ground or how much pollution hit the river, but estimates could improve as the $1.7 billion cleanup continues.
Workers still must remove and figure out how to treat 50 cubic meters of radioactive sludge, a mixture of decayed nuclear fuel, concrete and other debris on the basins' floors. That should be done by mid-2007, said Keith Klein, manager of the U.S. Energy Department's Richland Operations Office, which oversees the project. Then, by 2009, crews should remove the basins themselves, he said. That will let scientists check how much pollution leaked to the ground below and what can be done to clean it, Ceto said.
The basins are a relic of Hanford's work arming the nation's atomic bombs. Since World War II, the 586-square-mile site near Richland, Wash., has housed nuclear reactors that turned uranium into plutonium for nuclear weapons. Hanford made about 74 tons of plutonium for arms, Klein said, about two-thirds the nation's total.
When weapons production stopped, Hanford was left with 105,000 spent fuel elements. They were stored in 3-foot-tall metal canisters in the two cooling, water-filled "K Basins," each about the area of an Olympic-size swimming pool. It was poor long-term storage, Klein said, and the canisters soon cracked, exposing uranium to bare water and degrading the fuel.
"The more it degraded, the faster it degraded, in an accelerating process," he said.
Worse yet: Engineers realized about 11 years ago that a big earthquake might crack a pool's concrete and let the water drain out, said Ken Niles, nuclear safety administrator for the Oregon Office of Energy. If the fuel rods then hit air, they might spontaneously burn, creating a Chernobyl in south-central Washington.
That realization spurred efforts to remove the fuel. But Klein said enough "false starts and missteps" followed that a U.S. House subcommittee held a hearing about it in 1998. Given that history, he said, finishing the fuel removal brought "a great deal of pride and relief."
Working from a distance
The spent-fuel work was devilishly hard. Workers had to stand yards away and use machines to manipulate radioactive canisters. Some of the powdery fuel disintegrated on contact. Other fuel had chemically bonded to the metal canisters, which had to be cracked open with the Jaws of Life tools used on wrecked cars.
"You wouldn't think you could break a Jaws of Life," said Chris Lucas, who worked on the project for the site contractor, Fluor Hanford. "But we broke two."
The fuel's removal shows that even difficult, dangerous cleanup tasks at Hanford can be finished when the Energy Department provides enough resources, Niles said. He also praised regulators with the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board for staying focused on the project.
"We believe this is one of the most significant accomplishments there has been at Hanford," Nile said.
Andy Dworkin: 503-221-8239; firstname.lastname@example.org
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