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Nuclear lessons: Hanford tours go to heart of Cold War facility via The Spokesman Review

RICHLAND – At Hanford’s B Reactor, thousands of graphite blocks towered over Ernie Doyle’s head.

On a recent public tour, the 57-year-old truck driver from Hillsboro, Oregon, seized the chance to take a close look at the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor.

Uranium isotopes were loaded into aluminum tubes inside the graphite structure, setting off a chain reaction that produced plutonium.

The reactor was in full swing when Doyle’s dad worked at Hanford as a ferry operator in the late 1950s. But during the U.S.-Soviet arms race, making plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal was still a hush-hush affair.

“He knew something was going on” but no details, Doyle said of his father. “It’s amazing what they did here.”

Thousands of people visit Hanford each year on free tours conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy, taking advantage of the opportunity to see southeast Washington’s once off-limits nuclear site.

The tours are packed with information about Hanford’s role in the race to build an atomic bomb during World War II and its contribution to the Cold War’s nuclear stockpile. The tours also discuss environmental cleanup at the 586-square-mile site.

For Doyle, stopping at the B Reactor was a highlight of the bus tour. Plutonium from the reactor was used in the world’s first atomic blast, the 1945 Trinity test, and in the bomb dropped a few weeks later on Nagasaki, Japan.

[…]

• In one of Hanford’s most challenging environmental problems, 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste are stored in 177 giant, underground tanks. Nearly 40 percent of the tanks are believed to have leaked.

Construction has begun on a treatment plant that will blend the waste with glass-forming materials and heat it to 2,100 degrees. In the inert glass form, the waste’s radioactivity will dissipate over hundreds to thousands of years.

“This is proven technology that can work at Hanford,” said Dieter Bohrmann, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Ecology’s nuclear waste program.

But the Department of Energy says it can’t meet the 2019 deadline for starting up the treatment plant, which was part of a legal settlement involving the state, the Energy Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. State and federal officials are in dispute resolution talks to set a new deadline.

[…]

• A plume of polluted groundwater covers 60 square miles at Hanford, the legacy of 450 billion gallons of contaminated liquids and wastewater that was poured directly into the soil. The plume is being treated to slow its movement toward the Columbia River.

• Hanford had more than 1,000 waste sites, some of them old dumps where laboratory waste was disposed without records. Cleanup of a single site can require months of research. The Department of Energy touts the cleanup of nearly 900 waste sites as a remediation milestone.

“You can read about Hanford. You can hear about it in 90-second TV spots,” Buel said. “But when you actually come and see the places with your own eyes, you get a better sense of the challenges and the progress.”

[…]

One of the tour stops is a high-tech landfill, where 16 million tons of low-level radioactive waste have been disposed of over the past two decades.

But it will take another 56 years to finish Hanford’s cleanup, according to a recent status report prepared under the 1989 Tri-Party agreement, the pact among the state of Washington, the EPA and the Energy Department that governs the site’s remediation.

In reality, “it’s hard to say what Hanford’s end date will be,” said the Department of Ecology’s Bohrmann.

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