The decommissioned plutonium-producing DR reactor (left) and D reactor (right) are shown on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, June 13, 2017, near Richland. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios, File)

The decommissioned plutonium-producing DR reactor (left) and D reactor (right) are shown on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, June 13, 2017, near Richland. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios, File)

US government works to ‘cocoon’ old Hanford nuclear reactors

They’ll be placed in long-term storage to allow radiation inside to dissipate over a period of decades.

  • By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS Associated Press
  • Thursday, November 4, 2021 7:12am
  • Northwest

By Nicholas K. Geranios / Associated Press

SPOKANE — Costs to clean up a massive nuclear weapons complex in Washington state are usually expressed in the hundreds of billions of dollars and involve decades of work.

But one project on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is progressing at a much lower price.

The federal government is moving forward with the “cocooning” of eight plutonium production reactors at Hanford that will place them in a state of long-term storage to allow radiation inside to dissipate over a period of decades, until they can be dismantled and buried.

“It’s relatively non-expensive,” Mark French, a manager for the U.S. Department of Energy, said of cocooning. “The cost of trying to dismantle the reactor and demolish the reactor core would be extremely expensive and put workers at risk.”

The federal government built nine nuclear reactors at Hanford to make plutonium for atomic bombs during World War II and the Cold War. The site along the Columbia River contains America’s largest quantity of radioactive waste.

The reactors are now shut down and sit like cement fortresses near the southeastern Washington city of Richland. Six have already been cocooned for long-term storage, and two more are headed in that direction. The ninth reactor was turned into a museum as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

While World War II ended in 1945 and the Cold War ended in 1989, the United States is still paying billions of dollars per year for the disposal of the nuclear waste produced by the atomic weapons that played a big role in ending those conflicts. The biggest expense is dealing with a massive volume of liquid wastes left over from the production of plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.

While the liquid wastes stored in 177 underground tanks will take decades of work and hundreds of billions of dollars to clean, efforts to secure the nine plutonium reactors are much closer to completion.

The last two reactors, shut down in 1970 and 1971, are about to enter the cocooning stage, when they are covered with steel and cement to prevent radioactivity from escaping into the environment, French said.

The cocoons are expected to last about 75 years, by which time the radioactivity inside will have dramatically decreased and there presumably will be a plan for final disposition of the remaining parts, French said.

Every five years, workers enter the reactor building to make sure there are no leaks or rodent or bird infestations, he said.

Cleanup of Hanford, which has about 11,000 employees and is half the size of Rhode Island, started in the late 1980s, and now costs about $2.5 billion per year. The work has been slowed by technical issues, lack of funding, lawsuits from state regulators, worker exposure to radiation and turnover of contractors on the complex job.

But the handling of the old reactors is a bright spot.

The nine reactors — called B Reactor, C Reactor, D Reactor, DR Reactor, F Reactor, H Reactor, K-East Reactor, K-West Reactor, and N Reactor — were built from 1943 through 1965.

They were constructed next to the Columbia River because of the abundance of hydropower and cooling water needed by the reactors during operation.

All have been cocooned except K-East and K-West. Work on cocooning the K-East reactor has already started and should be finished by 2023, French said. Work on the K-West reactor is scheduled for completion in 2026.

The cocoon plan for K-East and K-West is to basically construct steel buildings around them. Each building is 158 feet (48.2 meters) long, 151 feet (46 meters) wide and 123 feet (37.5 meters) tall, French said. The two steel buildings will cost less than $10 million each.

Future generations will decide the final disposition of the eight reactors, French said. They will likely be dismantled and buried in the central area of the Hanford site, away from the river.

“Robots may be deployed in the future” for that work, French said.

Hanford watchdogs generally agree with this process, said Tom Carpenter, director of the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge.

“Nobody is raising any concerns about cocooning,” Carpenter said. “We’re all worried about the tank waste that needs immediate and urgent attention.”

The bigger question is whether future generations will be willing to pay the massive costs of Hanford cleanup, he said.

Carpenter said the estimated cost to completely clean up just the tank wastes at the Hanford site is around $660 billion.

“It’s rather grim. It’s multigenerational,” he said.

“This will cost more than anyone thought possible,” Carpenter said of the tank wastes and other wastes that were dumped into the ground at Hanford. “It’s a hidden cost of the (nuclear) buildup.”

By then, there might be bigger budget concerns such as dealing with the effects of climate change, Carpenter said.

The most intriguing of the old reactors is the B Reactor, the first one built during World War II. It will not be cocooned, and can be visited by tourists at the national historical park. B Reactor, which shut down in 1968, was cleaned up enough to allow some 10,000 tourists to visit each year and learn the history of Hanford. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Plutonium from Hanford’s B Reactor was used in the testing of the world’s first atomic bomb in July 1945. Called the Trinity Test, the bomb was blown up in the New Mexico desert. Hanford plutonium was also used for the bomb that was dropped over Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.

Talk to us

More in Northwest

Logo for news use, for stories regarding Washington state government — Olympia, the Legislature and state agencies. No caption necessary. 20220331
Washington state to pay $3.1M to settle lawsuit

The state is set to pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit over alleged severe neglect at an adult family home.

FILE - Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, poses for a photo in Issaquah, Wash., Oct. 24, 2016. Sen. Mullet launched a campaign for governor on Thursday, June 1, 2023 joining a growing field of candidates seeking to replace outgoing Gov. Jay Inslee. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)
Washington state Sen. Mark Mullet announces governor run

He joins a growing field of candidates seeking to replace outgoing Gov. Jay Inslee.

King County map logo
Judge orders Washington AG’s office, DSHS to pay more for evidence withholding

A judge imposed the new costs in a ruling Friday. The amount is on top of an earlier $200,000 sanction.

Gov. Jay Inslee signs Senate Bill 5536 concerning controlled substances on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Olympia, Wash. Behind him are from left to right: Rep. Roger Goodman, D- Kirkland, Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, June Robinson, D-Everett, an identified woman and Andy Billig, D-Spokane. The policy, approved by Washinton lawmakers and signed by Inslee, keeps controlled substances illegal while boosting resources to help those struggling with addiction.  (Karen Ducey/The Seattle Times via AP)
New Washington law keeps drugs illegal, boosts resources for housing and treatment

Gov. Jay Inslee quickly signed a major new drug policy Tuesday that keeps controlled substances illegal.

FILE - Patients line up to pick up medication for opioid addiction at a clinic in Olympia, Wash., on March 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Washington lawmakers reach deal on drug policy, avoid automatic decriminalization

Lawmakers will consider the compromise Tuesday when they return to Olympia for a special session.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz watches as a team works to remove old toxic pilings from the water as part of larger salmon restoration plan near Ebey Waterfront Park in Marysville, Washington on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.  (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz announces run for governor

Gov. Jay Inslee announced on May 1 that he would not seek a fourth term.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signs bills at the Washington State Capitol, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Olympia, Wash. One of those bills was Senate Bill 5599, which was designed to protect young people seeking reproductive health services or gender-affirming care. (AP Photo/Ed Komenda)
Trans minors protected from parents under Washington law

Minors seeking gender-affirming care in Washington will be protected from the intervention of estranged parents under a new law.

The remains of Hurricane Ridge Day Lodge were to be examined by fire investigators. (National Park Service)
Fire investigators arrive to examine remains of Hurricane Ridge lodge

No fire suppression equipment was in structure; contents had been removed

FILE - A Boeing 737 Max jet prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle, Sept. 30, 2020. Boeing said Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, that it took more than 200 net orders for passenger airplanes in December and finished 2022 with its best year since 2018, which was before two deadly crashes involving its 737 Max jet and a pandemic that choked off demand for new planes. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Boeing inks deal for up to 300 737 Max planes with Ryanair

At Boeing’s list prices, the deal would be worth more than $40 billion if Ryanair exercises all the options.

Logo for news use, for stories regarding Washington state government — Olympia, the Legislature and state agencies. No caption necessary. 20220331
Gov. Inslee signs law allowing duplexes, fourplexes

Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday signed a law legalizing duplexes and fourplexes in most neighborhoods in nearly every city in Washington.

The only dinosaur discovered in Washington state was discovered by paleontologists who found a portion of a left femur of a therapod dinosaur at Sucia Island state park in the San Juan Islands. While scientists are unsure exactly what type of therapod the fossil belongs to, evidence suggests it is a Daspletosaurus. The dinosaur has been nicknamed
Suciasaurus rex. This image shows a Daspletosaurus torosus restoration. (Wikipedia)
Suciasaurus rex named Washington state’s official dinosaur

Gov. Jay Inslee has signed a bill designating the Suciasaurus rex as the official dinosaur of the state.

FILE - Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio rallies in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 17, 2019. Tarrio and three other members of the far-right extremist group have been convicted of a plot to attack the U.S. Capitol in a desperate bid to keep Donald Trump in power after Trump lost the 2020 presidential election.  (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)
Proud Boys’ Tarrio guilty of Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy

Enrique Tarrio and three other members of the far-right extremist group were convicted Thursday of a plot to attack the U.S. Capitol.