My experience on the Hanford Cleanup Tour

Author: Paul Priest

I went on the Hanford Cleanup Tour!  Amy (my spouse) and I got up at 4am, hopped in a rental car, and drove to Richland from Seattle, arriving almost on time for the 8am tour.  We signed in, donned our badges and jumped on the tour bus, having missed most of the introductory video.

imgBefore going any further I should mention that you can’t just show up for the tour.  There are a limited number of free “tickets,” so just as with any Beyonce concert, first you have to know when the tickets become available online, then click on your preferred date and hope it’s still available.  Tours are offered several times a week from April through August, but they’re scooped up quickly, “selling out” quickly.

Once all were aboard we set out for our first destination:  The Cold Test Facility (CTF).  Here, we were introduced to the activities of one of the primary contractors used by DOE, Washington River Protection Solutions, to remove the contents from Hanford’s 177 waste tanks.  Next we viewed the CTF itself, a full scale mockup of a medium-size waste storage tank.  Here they test procedures and technologies for waste removal without the risks associated tanks that contain actual waste.

Back on the bus, we headed for our next destination.  I should mention at this point that you spend quite a bit of the 4.5 hrs long tour on the bus for a couple of reasons:  The Hanford Site is large –586 square miles, and most destinations are “drive bys.”  For example, you can see from afar, but not enter, the “cocooned” reactors with their doors welded shut, awaiting decay of the radionuclides in their graphite piles.  Several other sites are viewed from the bus up close as it circles the buildings, but no touching allowed.

We were allowed inside the 200 West Area 200 West Pump and Treat facility that over it its scheduled 25 years of operation is expected to pump 25 billion gallons of groundwater through the plant to remove a number of hazardous chemicals and radionuclides that percolated into it through unlined waste disposal pits.  Picture miles of pipes running through and around many steel tanks in a variety of sizes and shapes.

Perhaps the most ominous view was of the Plutonium Finishing Plant, a discolored, partially demolished hulk of raw concrete and steel.  The discoloration comes from an adhesive that’s sprayed on the building during demolition to keep the contaminated debris within the containment zone.  In 2017, a number of workers and vehicles that were driven off site were found to have been contaminated with radioactive particles.  Major demolition was halted until a cause and solution to the contamination is found.  No work was going on when we circled the building.

One site we drove by that I had no idea existed is Trench 94, where retired naval reactors are stored.  The Navy removes the spent fuel and liquids from decommissioned nuclear subs and ships moored at Naval bases and sends it to Idaho’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for storage.  The hulls are towed to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard where reactor compartments are cut out of the vessels, sealed at both ends and shipped to Hanford for long term storage.  There are currently about 130 reactor compartments stored there, with room for more.

The 324 building illustrates how difficult it can be to clean up Hanford in a timely manner.  This Waste Technology Engineering Laboratory housed “…a series of hot cells that were used to conduct diverse studies…of high-activity radioactive materials…” from 1966 to 1998. Preparations for stabilization and demolition of the building, begun in 1999, had to be halted in 2010 when workers discovered a crack in the floor of B-cell that had allowed highly radioactive nuclides to contaminate the soil below. Progress has been made in developing a procedure to remove the soil but as of 2019, no actual soil removal has begun.  And once the soil has been removed and containerized, the containers will be stored in the 324 building until a suitable long term storage solution is found.  In other words, the 324 building will not be demolished any time soon.

We only got to see the ridgeline of the berm surrounding the Environmental Remediation Disposal Facility.  This is where much of the equipment and materials that are contaminated in the process of cleaning up Hanford are buried.  Alas, in the process of cleaning up radioactive waste, you end up generating more waste.

Many other sites and subjects were covered —displacement of people from their land, numerous other hazardous waste sites yet to be dealt with, the Waste Treatment Plant, the Purex Tunnels –but eventually we returned to the start, exited the bus for the last time, doffed our badges, turned in our tour booklets, and drove home, the enormity of Hanford’s intergenerational challenge reverberating in our heads.

Was the tour worth the time?  I’d say yes, in large part because our guides, retired Hanford employees in our case, provided technical and historical context, didn’t shy away discussing controversial issues, and were willing, to the best of their ability, to answer any questions you might ask.

If you would like to go on the Hanford Cleanup Tour, you’ll have to wait until 2020; all 2019 slots are taken.  However, the Manhattan Project National Park offers B-Reactor tours and Pre-Manhattan Project Historic tours that have available slots into Nov. 2019.

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