Seattle P-I

Plutonium dust removal won't be finished till 2003

Monday, June 5, 2000


RICHLAND -- The legacy of a 1963 fire at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation remains nearly 40 years later, and it could take another three years to remove completely the remnants of the blaze.

The fire at the 233-S Building burned through clear plastic panels separating workers on three levels of catwalks from the systems of radioactive pipes, which prepared plutonium nitrate liquids to be sent to Hanford's Plutonium Finishing Plant during the Cold War.

With the plastic barrier breached, plutonium particles wafted into the building's ventilation system. Two to 6.6 pounds of plutonium-laced dust and residue scattered around the building, permanently lost to Hanford's production efforts.

It was one of the worst accidents in Hanford's history, probably caused by someone who added the wrong chemical to the system the previous day.

It took six months to decontaminate the building so that work could resume inside.

Today, Hanford workers face another three years of labor to neutralize and tear down the highly contaminated concrete building, which is about the size of two two-story houses stacked on top of each other.

The decontamination and demolition of Building 233-S is a high-priority Hanford project, costing about $5.5 million a year.

The building at central Hanford consists of a four-story central chamber with extra rooms tacked on at various times.

Decades of hot and cold weather have cracked the facility's concrete, especially at the joints between the rooms and chambers.

It's dangerous, considering the old building contains a few pounds of plutonium-laced dust scattered about.

Built in 1953 and decommissioned in 1967, the 233-S Building is dwarfed by the neighboring REDOX plant, which extracted plutonium from irradiated reactor-fuel rods.

The 233-S Building was connected to REDOX by a collection of 25-foot-long pipes, which transported plutonium-laced solutions from REDOX for final processing before shipping to be made into plutonium "buttons" for atomic bombs.

Since the late 1980s, Hanford employees have worked on and off to spray a paint-like coating over the contaminated walls and floors, and otherwise decontaminate most of the rooms outside the main four-story chamber.

The cluster of contaminated pipes connecting 233-S to the REDOX plant has been removed.

The project's 40 workers, most of them Bechtel Hanford employees, are beginning to clean out the main chamber. The task is expected to last until 2003.

"The No. 1 thing is safety. So we proceed very slowly and deliberately when we're doing our work," said Allan Chaloupka, Bechtel's manager for this project.

That means each worker entering the main chamber has to wear two layers of protective clothing, three layers of gloves and an air respirator.

Heat and other stresses of functioning in those clothes limit work in the main chamber to two to 2 1/2 hours at a time.

By 2003, Hanford plans to have completely destroyed the building. The slightly radioactive rubble is to be buried in a huge central Hanford landfill.

The highly radioactive debris, plus anything contaminated with plutonium, is supposed to be stored in a central Hanford building to eventually be shipped to a man-made, underground storage site in New Mexico.

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