Tag Archives: hanford nuclear site

Breathing in Plutonium Dust: Hanford

Testing a sheep's thyroid for radiation. Image from wikipedia

The Energy Department project to tear down the Plutonium Finish Plant at the Hanford Site was halted in mid-December 2017 after radioactive dust was discovered far off the plant site. T As crews demolished a shuttered nuclear weapons plant during 2017 in central Washington, specks of plutonium were swept up in high gusts and blown miles across a desert plateau above the Columbia River.  The releases at the Department of Energy cleanup site spewed unknown amounts of plutonium dust into the environment, coated private automobiles with the toxic heavy metal and dispensed lifetime internal radioactive doses to 42 work

The contamination events went on for nearly 12 months, getting progressively worse before the project was halted in mid-December. Now, state health and environmental regulators, Energy Department officials and federal safety investigators are trying to figure out what went wrong and who is responsible.

The events at the Hanford Site, near the Tri-Cities area of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, vividly demonstrate the consequences when a radioactive cleanup project spirals out of control.

The mishap occurred at one of the nation's most radioactively contaminated buildings, known as the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The factory, which opened in 1949 a few miles from the Columbia River, supplied plutonium for thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons before it was shut down in 1989.
The exposures from the plutonium releases in 2017 were minuscule bestimated to be a small fraction of the background radiation that every human gets from nature. But unlike cosmic radiation or radon gas, plutonium can lodge itself inside the body and deliver tissue damaging alpha particles over a lifetime.... As workers removed equipment to prepare for walls to be torn down, air monitoring alarms sounded almost every day, he said. Workers were subjected to repeated nasal smears to determine if they had breathed plutonium dust, he said....Seven employee automobiles were contaminated at the plant site, according to a Jan. 9, 2018 letter from the state Department of Ecology to Doug Shoop, the federal site chief at Hanford... The demolition, costing $57 million, was being conducted by one of the nation's largest engineering firms, CH2M, a unit of Texas-based Jacobs Engineering. CH2M is now under federal investigation for the releases, according to a letter sent by the Energy Department's enforcement office in late March 2018...

In March 2018, the company released a preliminary analysis [pdf] of the contamination and blamed it on a half dozen factors, including a "fixative" that was supposed to bind the dust but was too diluted to work properly and a decision to accelerate demolition when the contamination seemed to be stable.  The Energy Department plan for the demolition originally required the contractor to remove debris as it accumulated. But in January 2017, just before the first releases, officials authorized CH2M to allow the debris to pile up, according to a monthly site report by an inspector for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency.  In fact, workers at the plant said the demolition site was ringed by 8-foot-tall piles of radioactive debris with little to prevent dust from blowing off...

The problems at the Plutonium Finishing Plant were not an isolated event at Hanford, which has struggled with its cleanup for more than a decade.
Work was stopped five years ago on key parts of a $16.8-billion waste treatment plant that is supposed to turn 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into glass. Technical deficiencies in its design are still being studied, while delays mount. Several years ago, the Energy Department pushed back the full startup by 17 years to 2039, though it hopes to begin treating some less radioactive waste by 2022....In 2017, a tunnel that stored railroad cars full of contaminated equipment collapsed. The Energy Department pumped the 358-foot long tunnel full of a concrete mixture. A decision is pending about what to do with a second storage tunnel 1,688 feet long.

The state attorney general, along with Hanford Challenge and a union, is suing the Energy Department for venting noxious gases from underground waste tanks over recent years, sickening workers.

Smith, the Ecology manager, said a lot of cleanup progress has been made at Hanford. Hundreds of buildings have been torn down. Much of the soil along the banks of the Columbia River has been cleaned up enough for any future use. And the site's nine nuclear reactors have been put in stable condition...

One of those facilities, known as 324 Building,[Chemical Materials Engineering Laboratory] was used to extract plutonium from spent fuel, said Robert Alvarez, a former assistant secretary of Energy and a longtime critic of the cleanup. The facility has civilian waste from Germany, sent as part of a research project, as well as large amounts of radioactive waste that was placed in unlined burial pits, he said. Records of what lies in the pits were destroyed in 1988, he said.

Excerpts from RALPH VARTABEDIAN, Contamination from a nuclear cleanup forced a shutdown. Investigators want to know who is responsible, LA Times, Apr. 16, 2018

Related posts:

Isolating Nuclear Waste for 15 Billion Years

Hanford Nuclear Waste Storage Tanks

Professor Ashutosh Goel at Rutgers University is the primary inventor of a new method to immobilize radioactive iodine in ceramics at room temperature and six glass-related research projects ...Developing ways to immobilize iodine-129 found in nuclear waste,...is crucial for its safe storage and disposal in underground geological formations. The half-life of iodine-129 is 15.7 million years, and it can disperse rapidly in air and water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If it’s released into the environment, iodine will linger for millions of years. Iodine targets the thyroid gland and can increase the chances of getting cancer.

Among Goel’s major funders is the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees one of the world’s largest nuclear cleanups following 45 years of producing nuclear weapons. The national weapons complex once had 16 major facilities that covered vast swaths of Idaho, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington state, according to the DOE.

The agency says the Hanford site in southeastern Washington, which manufactured more than 20 million pieces of uranium metal fuel for nine nuclear reactors near the Columbia River, is its biggest cleanup challenge.  Hanford plants processed 110,000 tons of fuel from the reactors. Some 56 million gallons of radioactive waste – enough to fill more than 1 million bathtubs – went to 177 large underground tanks. As many as 67 tanks – more than one third – are thought to have leaked, the DOE says. The liquids have been pumped out of the 67 tanks, leaving mostly dried solids...

“What we’re talking about here is highly complex, multicomponent radioactive waste which contains almost everything in the periodic table,” Goel said. “What we’re focusing on is underground and has to be immobilized.”

One of his inventions involves mass producing chemically durable apatite minerals, or glasses, to immobilize iodine without using high temperatures. A second innovation deploys synthesizing apatite minerals from silver iodide particles. He’s also studying how to immobilize sodium and alumina in high-level radioactive waste in borosilicate glasses that resist crystallization.

Excerpt from Professor Ashutosh Goel Invents Method to Contain Radioactive Iodine, Rutgers School of Engineering Press Release, Nov. 2016

Related posts:

Toxic Vapors and the 50 Million Gallons of Nuclear Waste

hanford_d_reactor

A federal court hearing set for October 2016 could reshape safety rules at the federal government’s Hanford nuclear-weapons-production complex in south central Washington state, where critics contend noxious vapors from underground tanks have harmed workers.At the hearing in Spokane, Wash., Judge Thomas O. Rice plans to consider motions filed by the Washington attorney general and private parties for a preliminary injunction requiring that certain safety measures be taken, including greater use of portable breathing apparatuses.

The parties say workers were exposed to vapors from the underground tanks, which hold more than 50 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste. The waste was created when Hanford, which closed in the late 1980s, produced plutonium for the atomic-weapons program.

The injunction requests are part of litigation filed last year over the vapor issue against the Energy Department and one of its major Hanford contractors by the state, as well as an environmental and workers-advocacy group and a local labor union.

Earlier in 2016 “over 50 Hanford tank farm workers were sickened by toxic vapors spewed into the air,” said a court filing by the attorney general’s office. Over the years, hundreds or more workers have suffered problems ranging from nosebleeds and headaches to long-term lung and brain damage, the plaintiffs contend....

The Energy Department, which oversees the cleanup, in a court filing called the injunction motions “an unwarranted intrusion into DOE’s ongoing cleanup operations, including the world-class worker-safety and industrial-hygiene measures” the agency has put in place....Granting the preliminary injunction could also delay by up to five years efforts to comply with a separate court-mandated schedule for emptying tanks as part of a long-term plan to treat and dispose of the waste, the filing said. Among other things, workers using supplied-air packs “generally move more slowly,” it added.

Excerpts from At Hanford Nuclear Site, Hearing on Tap After Workers Complain of Noxious Vapors, WSJ, Oct. 1, 2016

Related posts: