SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Workers on a former nuclear weapons production site have started the first large-scale treatment of radioactive and chemical wastes from large underground storage tanks, a key milestone in cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the U.S. Department of Energy said Wednesday.
Hanford for decades made plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal and is the most radioactively contaminated site in the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. It was created by the Manhattan Project and made the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of the World War II.
William White, Energy Department senior advisor for environmental management, called the new $130 million cesium removal system a major milestone.
“The importance of this achievement can’t be overstated,” White said, adding that it would eventually transform the Hanford site.
The newly operational system removes radioactive cesium and solids from waste stored in huge underground tanks at Hanford. The treated waste will be stored until it is sent to the nearby Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, where it will be converted into a glass-like substance for long-term storage. That plant, under construction since 2002, comes online next year, the agency said.
“This is an exciting new era in our Hanford cleanup mission,” said Brian Vance, manager of DOE’s Office of River Protection at Hanford. “For the first time in Hanford site history, we are treating a significant amount of tank waste on an industrial scale.”
Hanford tank operations contractor Washington River Protection Solutions — working with Energy Department staff, other site contractors and regulatory agencies — built, installed and tested the cesium removal system.
The technology is nearly identical to a system operating at DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which also made plutonium, the agency said.
Hanford contains approximately 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks, representing one of DOE’s largest environmental risks and most complex challenges. The tank waste is a result of nearly five decades of plutonium production that supported national security missions and helped end World War II, the DOE said.
“This is a win,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who used to represent the Hanford area in the U.S. House, said in a pre-recorded statement. Inslee noted that the wastes stored inside the tanks, some of which are leaking, could eventually threaten the nearby Columbia River.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called the news “a monumental step” in the cleanup of Hanford.
But it is one step.
Finishing the cleanup of Hanford, located near Richland in southcentral Washington, will cost an estimated $300 billion to $640 billion, and take until about 2078, according to a Department of Energy report published at the end of January.
The 580-square-mile (1,502-square-kilometer) Hanford site, located along the Columbia River, produced almost two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.
DOE is spending about $2.5 billion annually on environmental cleanup of the wastes, plus contaminated buildings, soil and groundwater. But the estimated costs to finish most cleanup by 2078 would require much larger annual budgets.
This story has been corrected to show that treated waste will be stored in an underground tank, not special capsules.