PRF at end.jpeg

The Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford is shown before the demolition of its Plutonium Reclamation Facility, covered in blue fixative, was completed. The facility was once attached to the main plant. (Courtesy Department of Energy)

RICHLAND, Wash. — A Department of Energy office has launched an independent investigation into the spread of radioactive contamination at Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant

The investigation is being conducted by the enforcement section of the DOE Office of Enterprise Assessments, which directly reports to the Energy Secretary’s office and is independent of DOE officials responsible for environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

It can order enforcement actions, such as fining contractors who don’t adhere to legally enforceable security and safety requirements.

A letter sent to central Hanford contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. from the enforcement office said the investigation would look into “the facts and circumstances” of the spread of radioactive contamination in 2017 and 2018.

The investigation will ask for documents, a visit to Hanford and interviews with contractor employees, the letter said.

“This investigation is one of the first steps in the Department of Energy’s enforcement process, and based on this activity, the department will issue a report and recommend an appropriate enforcement path,” said the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office in a statement about the work of the DOE Office of Enforcement.

Small particles of radioactive material were found outside of a boundary around demolition areas where radioactive materials were expected to be contained.

More contamination was found on worker and government cars, and the steps of an office.

It spread across a central Hanford street outside the plant property, and was found by air detectors near both the defunct U Plant and REDOX plant.

Eleven workers tested positive for small amounts of internal contamination from inhaling or ingesting particles after the most recent spread of contamination at the plant. After an earlier incident of airborne contamination at the plant in June, 31 workers tested positive for internal contamination.

Analysis of air samples collected over months by the Washington Department of Health during 2017 found very small amounts of plutonium or americium near Highway 240 and the K Reactors near the Columbia River.

The samples were collected on Hanford land closed to the public, but not far from areas where the public has access. The Department of Health said the levels found were too low to pose a health risk.

Plutonium Finishing Plant leadership is continuing to hold roundtable discussions with workers to discuss the demolition project and to hear feedback.

The focus now at the plant is making sure that contaminated building rubble that has not been prepared for disposal is stable, and no more contamination becomes airborne.

Plant workers temporarily were moved in January to any available office space in central Hanford outside of a control area around the plant.

Preparations were being made this week to move those workers into mobile trailers closer to the plant.

An expert panel assembled by DOE is reviewing CH2M’s evaluation of what went wrong in December during demolition of the plant.

It also will review plans to demolish what’s left, which have yet to be made public.

Plant leadership also is continuing to hold roundtable discussions with workers to discuss the demolition project and hear feedback.

Demolition will not resume until Hanford regulators and DOE officials believe it can be done safely.

The Plutonium Finishing Plant was the final stop for plutonium produced at Hanford’s reactors during the Cold War before it was shipped off site to weapons plants. Plutonium in a liquid solution came into the plant, where it was formed into buttons the size of hockey pucks or turned into oxide powder.