RICHLAND, Wash. – Hanford’s past, present and future were on display last week as Energy Secretary Rick Perry celebrated a significant cleanup milestone of transferring 35 cubic yards of highly radioactive sludge from a reactor basin near the Columbia River to safe storage in the center of the 580-square-mile site.
Perry lauded the accomplishment during a ceremony attended by about 200 Hanford workers, tribal leaders, community leaders, Hanford regulators, and the news media. The Secretary was joined by Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington state, Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar, EM Senior Advisor Ike White, and Hanford Site Manager Brian Vance.
“This takes a risk away from the Columbia River and this community,” Perry said. “I hope today is a confirmation that government can do what it says it is going to do and do it in a reasonable way.”
In his remarks, Dabbar invoked a letter written by famed physicist Albert Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, calling for action to defend against a potential weapon scientists working for Adolf Hitler were developing.
“From that step, the people of the Tri-Cities heard their call to action and constructed the first plutonium reactor, helping to defeat the tyrannies of World War II,” Dabbar said.
During the ensuing Cold War, more reactors were constructed. Hanford's K East and K West reactors were built side by side in the 1950s and operated for 15 years. In the 1970s and 1980s, the reactors’ spent fuel basins were used to store irradiated fuel from N Reactor, Hanford’s last operating reactor.
The last of the 2,300 tons of fuel was removed from the basins in 2004. Workers transferred sludge from the K East Basin and removed the basin itself. After years of preparation, workers started transferring 35 cubic yards of sludge out of underwater containers in the K West Basin and completed the project in September.
“Today marks the important closing of the door of yesteryear and the successful cleanup of the last reactor,” Dabbar said.
With the sludge removed, efforts are now underway to remove debris, such as contaminated tools and pumps, from the basin, after which dewatering and demolition will begin. The sludge will remain in interim safe storage at Hanford’s T Plant until a disposition path is selected.
Perry also visited the B Reactor National Historic Landmark, part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, and received an update on the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant’s Low-Activity Waste Facility, which is set to begin treating Hanford’s tank waste by the end of 2023.
Perry finished his visit at a Hanford mockup facility with local science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) high school students who were learning about future cleanup and potential careers. The facility is used to develop equipment and train workers to remove highly contaminated soil from beneath the 324 Building, a former chemical laboratory.