Nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear-weapons program during the Cold War was processed inside the plant at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

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Shears on the end of an excavator arm tore into Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant on Tuesday afternoon.

The demolition, starting on small metal airlocks attached to the side of the plant, followed 20 years of work to clean the highly contaminated plant. Nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear-weapons program during the Cold War was processed inside.

“This plant is one of the most hazardous buildings at Hanford, and its demolition will be a major watershed in the Hanford cleanup,” said Alex Smith, nuclear-waste program manager for the state Department of Ecology, the regulator on the project.

U.S. Department of Energy officials have called the plant the largest and most complex plutonium facility in the nationwide DOE complex.

Work to prepare the plant for demolition has proceeded at a deliberate pace, starting with stabilization of plutonium left in the plant in a liquid solution at the end of the Cold War. More recent work has included cleaning and dismantling highly contaminated equipment.

It led to the start of open-air demolition of the plant Tuesday.

Demolition is starting with the Plutonium Reclamation Facility, a 22,000-square-foot annex added to the main plant to recover plutonium from the plant’s waste material as demand for it increased during the Cold War.

By December, DOE contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation is expected to be taking down the small building that contains the Americium Recovery Facility between the Plutonium Reclamation Facility and the Plutonium Finishing Plant’s main section.

The Americium Recovery Facility, the size of a double-car garage, contains the McCluskey Room, where worker Harold McCluskey was injured in an explosion in 1976.

A pause in demolition is planned after that to review what has been learned so far, and complete final cleaning of the main area of the plant, which covers 200,000 square feet and stands three stories tall.

Demolition should be finished about July 2017, ending with an explosion to bring down the plant’s ventilation stack.