Tag Archives: Hanford nuclear weapons production complex

Cleaning Up the US Nuclear Weapons Complex

A report from the National Academies of Sciences published in March 2019 recommends changes in the way that the U.S. Department of Energy manages science and technology (S&T) development in order to accelerate the cleanup of radioactive waste and contaminated soil, groundwater, and facilities at U.S. nuclear weapons sites.

A portion of DOE’s technology development should focus on breakthrough solutions and technologies that can substantially reduce schedules, risks, and uncertainties in the cleanup, says Independent Assessment of Science and Technology for the Department of Energy’s Defense Environmental Cleanup Program. This effort should be managed by ARPA-E, a DOE division that has a record of investing in innovative solutions for complex technical challenges; it would require substantial new funding…DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (DOE-EM) is responsible for cleaning up 107 sites in 31 states and one territory that were used for nuclear weapons development, testing, and related activities during the Manhattan Project and Cold War. The cleanup program began in 1989 and has, over the past three decades, cleaned up 91 sites at a cost of about $170 billion. DOE-EM projects that it will spend at least another 50 years and $377 billion to complete its cleanup of the 16 remaining sites.

The new report says that these time and cost estimates are highly uncertain – and probably low – because of significant remaining technical challenges and uncertainties, and also because additional sites and facilities may be added to the cleanup program in the future. ..Currently, DOE-EM’s management of S&T development is ad hoc and uncoordinated, the report says. Most DOE-EM-related S&T development activities are focused on individual sites, are driven and managed by contractors, and have a short-term emphasis on addressing technical challenges in existing cleanup projects…The successful cleanup of the large, complex Rocky Flats site near Denver showed that technology development and deployment can have major impacts in accelerating schedules and reducing costs, the report notes. The remaining cleanup sites – which include large, complex sites such as Hanford in Washington state, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee – provide an opportunity for S&T to have similar impacts.

The report identifies seven examples of technologies and alternative approaches that could substantially reduce costs and speed cleanup schedules – these include changes in waste chemistry and nuclear properties to facilitate treatment and disposal, and changes in human involvement in cleanup activities to increase efficiencies and reduce worker risks. 

Excerpts from Breakthrough Solutions and Technologies Needed to Speed Cleanup of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites, National Academies Press Release, Mar. 4, 2019

The Underground Nuclear Tank Farms: Hanford

After spending billions of dollars over several decades to remove radioactive waste leaking from a plant where nuclear bombs were made, the U.S. Department of Energy has come up with a new plan: leave it in the ground.  The shuttered Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which produced plutonium for U.S. atomic weapons from World War II through the Cold War, is the nation’s largest nuclear cleanup site with about 56 million gallons of waste stored in leak-prone underground tanks in south-central Washington State.  The Energy Department has proposed to effectively reclassify the sludge left in 16 nearly empty underground tanks from “high-level” to “low-level” radioactive waste. The re-classification would allow the department to fill the tanks with grout, cover them with an unspecified “surface barrier,” and leave them in place.

But environmental groups and others say the plan amounts to a semantic sleight of hand that will leave as much as 70,000 gallons of remaining nuclear sludge — some of which could be radioactive for millions of years — in the ground…

The cleanup operations at Hanford are projected to cost more than $100 billion, and the Energy Department has already spent more than $19 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office. The reclassification could save the department billions of dollars. It would also open the door to doing the same for all 177 tanks on the sprawling 586-square-mile reservation.

The Columbia River borders the Hanford land for almost 50 miles and some of the tanks are as close as five miles (eight kilometers) to the river, the largest in the Pacific Northwest and the source of irrigation for agriculture and drinking water for downstream citiesions.

Opponents include the Yakama Nation, whose reservation is located 20 miles west of the Hanford site and that has treaty rights to the Chinook salmon that spawn in the Columbia River. The nation wrote in comments to the agency that leaving the waste in unstable shallow land is “simply bad policy.”

Excerpts from Ari Natter, Plan to Leave Buried Nuclear Bomb Waste Underground Draws Fire, Bloomberg, Nov. 29, 2018

Nuclear Robots

Robots have been used in nuclear facilities for a long time.Scenarios such as maintenance tasks in nuclear facilities or even disasters like radioactive leaks or search and rescue operations have proven to be quite successful. We are talking about robotic  arms or remote operated vehicles with some end effectors built in to handle dangerous situations.”

1986: Chernobyl’s robot trouble–During the Chernobyl nuclear incident, the Soviet authorities in charge of cleaning up nuclear waste developed around 60 unique remote-controlled robots to spare human workers from radioactive exposure. The total cost of the clean-up operation was $2bn.  Designs included the STR-1 robot, which resembles a moon buggy. It was placed on the roof of the nuclear plant and used to clean upparts of the destroyed reactor. Another design for the purpose of debris cleaning was the Mobot, developed by Moscow State University. It was a smaller version of a loader used in construction, with a front-end bucket used to  scoop up debris.

The problem was that cleaning up nuclear waste required more skills than the robots could provide, eventually resulting in the authorities sending in soldiers to perform most of the decontamination works. Radiation was so high that each worker could only spend 40 seconds inside or near the facility; 31 died from exposure, while 237 suffered from acute radiation sickness.

2008: Cleaning up nuclear waste at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the US has been somewhat of a hub for nuclear waste innovation. This is because scientists, and their robot friends, are faced with the task of emptying nuclear and chemical waste tanks the size of around 150 basketball courts before the waste reaches the Columbia River. Exposure to the material would kill a human instantly.

Luckily, Hanford has developed a few automated machines thatare specifically designed for different parts of the job. Take Foldtrack, for example, which can access the tanks through one-foot-wide pipes in the roof bysplitting into a string of pieces, and then rebuilding itself like a Transformer once inside. The remote-controlled robot uses a 3,000psi water cannon to blast nuclear sludge off the walls of the tank and pump it out. Upon completion, scientists are forced to leave the $500,000 robot in the tank due to the high levels of contamination.

Another robot, the Sand Mantis, looks like a fire hose on wheels. However, it comes packed with power, with the ability to blast tough toxic salts that build up in waste tanks with its 35,000psi water cannon. For comparison, a regular firehose has around 300psi of pressure. In order to support the huge power, the orifice of the hose is made of gems, such as sapphires, which can withstand the pressure….Finally, the Tandem Synthetic Aperture Focusing Technique,or Tank Crawler, locates cracks or corrosion in Hanford’s waste storage tanks using ultrasonic and electrical conductivity sensors.

2011: Fukushima—Previously designed robots failed to visually inspect the reactor, either breaking due to high radiation or by getting stuck in the confined spaces. That was until Toshiba’s senior scientist in its technology division, Kenji Matsuzaki, developed the Little Sunfish – an amphibious bread loaf-sized robot that could slip into the 5.5-inch reactor pipelines.

In 2017,  the Sellafield nuclear site in the UK, scientists have been working on methods to clean up the vast amounts of nuclear sludge from its First-Generation Magnox Storage Pond, as part of decommissioning efforts said to cost around £1.9bn each year. The size of two Olympic swimming pools, the storage pond contains large amounts of nuclear sludge from decaying fuel rods stored below the surface.  While robots have been designed to reach the depths of the pond and remove nuclear waste, none proved to be very successful, until Cthulhu– Collaborative Technology Hardened for Underwater and Littoral Hazardous Environment.  Cthulhu is a tracked robot that can move along the bottom ofthe storage pond, using whisker-like sensors and sonar to identify and retrieve the nuclear rods.

2018:  The South West Nuclear Hub at the University of Bristol inthe UK is collaborating with Sellafield to develop a nuclear waste robotic suit for humans, taking inspiration from the comic book hero Iron Man.

Excepts from Cherno-bots to Iron Man suits: the development of nuclear waste robotics,, Power-Technology. com, Dec. 4, 2018

Breathing in Plutonium Dust: Hanford

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

Isolating Nuclear Waste for 15 Billion Years

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

50 Million Gallons Nuclear Waste: Hanford

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