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EM Employs Innovative Technology to Remove Radioactive Sludge

September 1, 2012 - 12:00pm


Testing and equipment simulations ensure first-of-a-kind technological processes for sludge removal can be conducted safely and efficiently.

Testing and equipment simulations ensure first-of-a-kind technological processes for sludge removal can be conducted safely and efficiently.

RICHLAND, Wash. – The Richland Operations Office and contractor CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company successfully removed a portion of a highly radioactive sludge from underwater storage in a large basin adjacent to the K West reactor at the Hanford site this month.

In that milestone, workers removed sludge originating from knock-out pots, which captured coarse sludge during fuel washing activities. Successful removal required extensive mock-ups for testing and operator training.

“This is a major step forward in protecting the Columbia River and a historic accomplishment in environmental cleanup,” said Tom Teynor, DOE project director for sludge treatment. “The successful removal of this highly radioactive material into safe storage now readies us for the next, and final, phase of this priority cleanup project.”

The sludge originated from corrosion of spent reactor fuel stored in the basin and other debris left over from plutonium production operations more than 30 years ago. The basin is located about 400 yards from the Columbia River, so removing the material and closing the basin are top priorities for DOE. Elimination of the sludge reduces environmental risks and enables demolition of the basin.

Since 2008, DOE and CH2M HILL have been working to develop the best approach for this first-of-its-kind project to treat, package, and remove the sludge for safe storage. CH2M HILL engineers have been developing innovative technologies and modifying equipment to get the job done safely on the first attempt.

The Richland Operations Office and CH2M HILL are currently focused on emptying the remainder of the basin’s sludge. About 35 cubic yards of sludge is stored 17 feet underwater in the basin. The water keeps the sludge particles cool and acts as protective shielding to workers.

That challenging project requires the development of special retrieval technologies, including mock-ups for testing and operator training to ensure the work will be accomplished safely.

Technology Team Determines Technology Ready for Successful Operations
A six-person Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA) review team consisting of experts from EM headquarters and national laboratory and technical consultants completed an assessment of the K Basins Closure Project technology processes that will be used to retrieve
the remaining sludge. The TRA review team commended the CH2M HILL project for the following:

  • A well-designed and executed technology development program;
  • Full characterization of the waste;
  • Extensive use of facilities to support testing of the technologies, especially the full-scale mock-up for testing and operator training located in the Maintenance and Storage Facility; and
  • Availability, knowledge and responsiveness of project staff during the assessment.

The TRA review team concluded that the critical technology elements for the first phase of the project have attained a sufficient technology readiness level and demonstrated a high level of confidence for successful operations.

“The Technology Readiness Assessment is a process used by the DOE, as well other government agencies and private industry, to assure we have taken the appropriate time and effort to create and implement designs that are the most robust, safe, and predictable for use in
high-risk endeavors,” said Ty Blackford, CH2M HILL Vice President of Decommissioning, Waste, Fuels and Remediation Services. “The assessment results achieved by the sludge treatment project team showed that they have taken this commitment to heart and will deliver the safest performance for the DOE in the completion of this mission.”

With the completion of this successful assessment, the project is now focused on final design, procurement and installation of the systems necessary to retrieve and transfer the remaining sludge.