The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and a cleanup contractor on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation face a $16,000 penalty for failing to identify white powder found in the long-shuttered PUREX plutonium production plant. The Washington State Department of Ecology assessed the penalty after trying for more than a year to get the powder identified.
Before it was closed down in the 1980s, the PUREX plant produced a substantial portion of the plutonium used in the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal. It is adjacent to the PUREX Tunnel 1 that partially collapsed in May, but the unidentified white powder and resulting penalty are not related to the tunnel collapse.
The white powder was documented by CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company (CHPRC) in May 2015 and was still there during an Ecology inspection that began in April 2016. As a result of that inspection, Ecology directed the company to identify the powder observed on the floor and equipment and, if it is hazardous, make a plan to clean it up. Instead, DOE responded that inside PUREX, the powder posed no threat to people or the environment, and declined to identify the powder.
In November 2016, Ecology cited DOE and CHPRC with a violation for failing to identify the powder. Since then, despite ongoing discussion and urging by Ecology, DOE and CHPRC have refused to identify the powder or take any action to clean it up. In April 2017 Ecology re-inspected and documented that no action had been taken.
“If this powder is a dangerous waste, it’s important to clean it up before it spreads further,” says John Price, the compliance section manager for Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program. “We want to avoid delays that cause a bigger cleanup with increased worker risks and higher costs.”