Contamination shut down demolition
In mid-December 2017, Energy and contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company (CHPRC) shut down demolition as high winds caused widespread distribution of airborne contaminants, including plutonium and americium. In early 2018, we joined with the EPA to issue an order preventing further demolition work while stronger safety protocols could be designed and put into practice at the site.
In the interim, Energy and its contractor tested new safety practices while proceeding with lower-risk work. In summer 2019, together with the EPA, we lifted that order, satisfied that new safety protocols would protect worker and public health and safety. That action cleared the way for full demolition to resume.
Work complete by end of 2021
If work proceeds as planned, by Summer 2021, Energy expects to have the final PFP building – the 236-Z Plutonium Reclamation Facility – reduced to its foundation slab of concrete, and the associated rubble safely disposed of in Hanford’s massive landfill after that.
The process to demolish and dispose of the Plutonium Finishing Plant complex – which at its peak numbered some 60 buildings – began more than 20 years ago. Open-air demolition on the plant began in late 2016 using heavy equipment to tear down its walls.
PFP demolition background
Plutonium and americium contamination was detected at PFP in summer 2017. Work resumed when it appeared that no additional contamination was coming from the facilities. However, when an ancillary building known as the reclamation facility was knocked down to its foundation in December of that year, there was a widespread release of plutonium and americium.
We were extremely concerned about those releases. Not only did the contamination spread far beyond the work containment zone established by Energy, contamination was carried off-site in workers’ vehicles. We were not convinced that Energy had adequate safeguards or monitoring in place to ensure safe operations. After major releases of contamination earlier in 2017, work was allowed to continue. The result was an even more widespread release. That clearly is unacceptable for worker and public health and safety, and threatened other Hanford cleanup operations.
After we joined with EPA to prohibit further demolition, we worked with Energy to ensure that it drew up and would be able to adhere to adequate protections such as the establishment of containment zones within which heightened safety measures are deployed, and the calibration and placement of monitors intended to signal contamination releases above acceptable regulatory limits.
Work resumed in phases
As new safety protocols were introduced, we allowed work on lower-risk tasks to resume. As the new safety approaches proved to be effective, we allowed gradually more risky work, eventually leading back to full demolition.
A highly contaminated facility
PFP was a complex of more than 60 buildings on the Hanford site. Irradiated fuel rods from Hanford’s nine nuclear reactors were processed elsewhere on site to extract plutonium in liquid form – plutonium nitrate. At PFP, that liquid was processed into hockey puck-sized “buttons” that were then sent to nuclear weapons production facilities elsewhere in the country. That work left PFP’s two central processing facilities among the most contaminated buildings at Hanford.
Current status of demolition activities and efforts to contain and track the spread of contamination at the finishing plant can also be found on Energy's Hanford website.
The state Department of Health's website includes information about air quality and oversight of releases of radiation at the Hanford site.
Plutonium Finishing Plant Timeline
Open air demolition begins late 2016.
June 8 — Plutonium americium contamination first detected; 31 workers test positive for internal radiation.
Dec. 14 — We're notified by Energy that work stopped after workers' air samplers show elevated radiation levels. Elevated readings occurred Dec. 8, Dec. 9 and Dec. 12. Work resumes later on Dec. 14 after no further contamination is detected.
Dec. 15 — Contamination found at air monitor outside established control area. Subsequent monitoring finds contamination on hood of vehicle, a concrete barrier, mobile office trailers and on a dumpster. Work continues.
Dec. 16 — Workers cover demolition debris with dirt and with glue-like fixative. New surveys find contamination on cars and around office trailers. A number of employees drive home, potentially tracking radioactive contamination off site and potentially into homes. Demolition continues.
Dec. 17 — Work stopped when contractor, CHPRC, is notified of the earlier contamination found. Workers apply more fixatives to try to prevent more contamination spread.
Jan. 9 — We issue letter, with EPA, prohibiting further demolition work until we’re certain work can continue safely without threat to workers, the public or the environment. The stop-work order is based on Article 32 of Tri-Party Agreement, a legal agreement signed by our agency, Energy and EPA. Article 32 gives any of the agencies authority to stop work if the work endangers health and safety of workers or public. Energy says seven worker vehicles and 16 government or contractor vehicles were contaminated with plutonium, and at least 269 Hanford workers requested blood tests, or bioassays.
Jan. 30 — State Health Department issues a letter formally expressing concerns. Health’s findings show contamination in air samples taken around Hanford site. Letter includes bulleted list of requests, many of which we had previously requested from Energy.
February — Contamination detected by state air monitors as far as 10 miles from the PFP demolition site. We continue to receive reports and news from other sources saying contamination has been found in air filters in worker’s cars, both inside and outside expanding PFP demolition zone. Some toxic airborne contaminants from the buildings have been ingested by workers.
March 22 — After December spread of contamination, 281 Hanford workers tested for radiation doses. Tests show 42 inhaled or ingested contamination. State experts consider the amounts found too small to pose health risk.
June — With EPA, we approve resumption of lower-risk demolition activities.
March — After reviewing, with EPA, Energy’s workscope plans and safety procedure improvements, as well as monitoring progress for ongoing lower-risk activities, we allow additional lower-risk demolition to proceed.
June — With EPA, we lift stop-work order, allowing final phase of higher-risk work to proceed.
Oct. 30 — Work of lower-risk demolition concludes.
Nov. 7 — Higher-risk final phase of demolition resumes.
January — Demolition of PFP's main processing facility finishes.
Feb. 10 — Cleanup work of PFP's 236-Z Plutonium Reclamation Facility resumes.
March—Present — PFP project gets put into shutdown mode due to COVID-19 pandemic. Work has yet to resume.