Plutonium Vaults Demolished at Top-Secret US Facility

April 22, 2012 Updated: April 23, 2012

Every inch of a formerly top-secret plutonium processing facility in Washington state needs to be scrubbed clean before it’s safely and completely destroyed.

On April 17, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced the demolition of Hanford’s plutonium vault complex. Beginning in World War II and throughout the Cold War era, the vaults were used to stow top-secret deposits of plutonium until they were shipped away for weapons construction.

Once part of the location’s Plutonium Finishing Plant (PFP), the Hanford vault complex was created as a final stop in a facility that produced nearly two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium stockpile. The nuclear materials developed at Hanford were used on-site for research during the Manhattan Project and later the Fat Man atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War II.

When officials signed the Tri-Party Agreement in 1989, an immediate cleanup was ordered, requiring removal of all the nuclear waste the plant had been producing since 1944.

The PFP is Hanford’s most hazardous facility and has proven to be an immense cleanup challenge.

“All the years of plutonium production at the [PFP] left the facility as one of the most contaminated facilities on the Hanford site,” said Rick Bond of the Washington State Department of Ecology, in “The Story of Hanford.” “It’s one of the state’s highest priorities.”

Due to the PFP’s enormous plutonium concentration, the area once required Hanford’s highest level of armed security.

“From a security perspective, it was the innermost sanctum for all of the security measures that were put in place across the site,” says Bob Heineman of CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company, the prime environmental cleanup group contracted for the job at Hanford.

To simply get onto the site, workers were required to pass through multiple searches, metal detectors, concrete walls, barbed wire, and nuclear material detectors.

In 2009, however, as the remaining surplus of plutonium was stabilized and shipped out of the PFP to the DOE’s Savannah River Site in Georgia for disposal, some members of the public were finally given a peek at the previously top-secret storage vaults.

With the vaults destroyed, the DOE and CH2M Hill will continue to remove contaminated equipment and other radiological and industrial hazards in preparing for the PFP’s complete demolition by 2016—a project that includes over 60 buildings.

But the cleanup effort is far from finished, as several facilities on the site still demand attention. Throughout Hanford, the process of transforming raw uranium into plutonium for nuclear weapons generated billions of gallons of liquid waste, and millions of tons in discarded radioactive solids.

Although considerable progress is being made at Hanford, what worries many is the capacity of cleanup efforts that are taking place along the Columbia River.

The military considered the riverside location, in Richland, Wash., ideal when they built the plant because it could utilize the waterway as an abundant source for cooling nuclear fuel rods, but they probably never imagined what would be required in a cleanup over 70 years later. There are 177 underground storage tanks that contain 53 million gallons of radioactive waste (60 percent of the national total); 149 of those tanks are only single-shelled, and thus prone to leaking.

The Department of Ecology reports that roughly 1 million gallons of toxic contaminants have leaked into the ground from the storage tanks, and the contamination is moving through groundwater toward the Columbia River. Approximately 1 million people live in 42 cities downstream of Hanford.

Tom Carpenter is the executive director of the Hanford Challenge, a foundation that works to hold Hanford accountable for its cleanup obligations. According to him, more radiation could leak into the ground and eventually into the river.

“That’s what we’re all worried about,” said Carpenter on a KCTS Connects segment concerning the groundwater contamination. “This river could become highly toxic if that were to happen.”

Considering the size, scope, and difficulty of clearing out several tons of nuclear waste, the DOE maintains that it’s doing all it can to protect areas along the shoreline.

“I think we’re doing some great things for the environment, but it goes unnoticed,” says Cameron Hardy of the DOE’s Richland Operations Office. “You could read about it all, and still not scratch the surface.”

The cornerstone of these cleanup efforts is Hanford’s Waste Treatment Plant (WTP).

The WTP is the largest and most expensive environmental remediation project in the world. Set to open in 2016, it will be the world’s first chemical waste processing facility, capable of both separating radioactive liquid waste and turning it into a glass form. The glass will then be suitable for permanent and safe disposal.

Hardy says the ongoing demolition and cleanup at Hanford can provide further insight for those looking to handle future nuclear development efforts. He wants people to understand the importance of taking what history has dealt, good or bad, and learning from it.

“We want people to understand [Hanford’s] complexities—not that we’re just making progress, but that it’s history,” says Hardy. “And there are a lot of complexities, so it’s easy to talk about it negatively.”