By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald
RICHLAND — The historic Hanford guard tower that stood above the Columbia River for a half-century has been pulled to the ground.
“It’s really an iconic symbol of Hanford plutonium production,” said Gary Snow, director of deactivation and demolition for Department of Energy contractor Washington Closure Hanford, as work to clean up the rubble that remained from the tower began Thursday.
Taking it down is part of environmental cleanup of the area around Hanford’s ninth plutonium-production reactor, N Reactor, which is legally required to be completed at the end of the year.
The 62-foot tower was bolted to the deck of a water-intake structure on the Columbia River that housed seven pumps, most of them used to provide cooling water from the river for N Reactor.
Guards would climb five flights of steps to the guard shack wrapped with bullet-resistant steel plating and perched high above the river to watch for intruders onto the nuclear reservation during the Cold War.
On Wednesday, former Hanford guard Joe Rodriquez came out to the river to watch the tower get pulled down with a cable attached to a bulldozer.
“It was a sad moment to see it go away,” he said.
He said he would have preferred to have it saved as a part of Hanford history. But he still has great memories of his hours spent in the tower, noting the changing of the seasons and spotting wildlife, including wild horses that once roamed Hanford, he said.
Another former Hanford guard, Terry Henry, said she would have been happy to spend her entire shift on lookout in the tower. Typically, guards were relieved after two hours.
In earlier years, private boats were not allowed on the section of the river near the reactors. When the river was opened to anglers and other recreational boating use, guards would scan up and down the river from the tower to make sure no one landed on Hanford shores.
There was one report of a “submarine” in the river during the years N Reactor operated, 1963 to 1987.
A patrolman jumped to the conclusion a sub was causing water to bubble up in the center of the river and then had a hard time living down the ribbing from co-workers that followed, Henry said. In fact, a pipe into the center of the river returned water there.
Mostly, Henry spotted wildlife on her shifts in the guard tower.
“I watched 23 head of elk swim across the river,” she said.
That was before the Hanford elk herd was established and, given her status as one of Hanford’s first female guards, her co-workers didn’t believe her.
“They finally came to see,” she said.
Sturgeon 10 to 15 feet long were easy to see in the water from the height of the tower, she said. On a sunny day, she might spot three to five of them laying near the warm riprap.
For years, a doe would swim to an area not far from the guard tower to have her babies, she said. Because of fencing, the spot could only be reached through the water.
“Smart mama. The coyotes couldn’t get in,” Henry said.
One year, she swam out with twins, and Hanford workers went into the water to rescue one of the fawns that was in danger of drowning.
Some of the deer near N Reactor came to associate people with food, despite notices telling workers not to feed them, and the deer liked to come in the gate to reach the green grass, Rodriquez said.
“We had to grab them by the neck and push them away so people could get through the gate,” he said.
Raccoons also could be a nuisance, climbing up the steps to the tower, Henry said.
The tower may be an iconic symbol of Hanford’s Cold War operations, but letting it stand was not practical, according to DOE.
DOE heard from the public that it wanted the Columbia River shoreline restored, said Cameron Hardy, DOE spokesman. The water-intake structure was built into the water and the guard tower stood on its deck above the water.
Extensive work already has been done to prepare to take down that structure, which, unlike many at Hanford, has no radioactive contamination.
Washington Closure had to build up a berm around its base to serve as a platform for work and help protect the river.
Divers were sent 30 feet below the water surface to vacuum up sediment that had accumulated at the pumps in the structure.
The water-intake building was a catacomb inside with seven pumps.
They included two backup diesel pumps salvaged from unneeded submarines and an electric pump for fire suppression.
The four main pumps, used for N Reactor cooling water, each could pump 105,000 gallons per minute.
After the building is demolished later this month, much of the berm will be left.
Its slope provides better habitat for juvenile fish than the deep hole there before, according to Hanford officials.