Hanford plant one step closer to processing nuclear waste

Environment

Sen. Maria Cantwell says the plant is on track to begin treating waste in 2023.

Workers inside Hanford Site’s Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant. Photo courtesy Hanford Site’s Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A decommissioned nuclear production complex in Eastern Washington announced Wednesday it’s one step closer to processing its 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. 

U.S. Department of Energy officials visited Hanford Site’s Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, or Vit Plant, to join in sharing the news that they’ve completed all facility construction for direct-feed low-activity waste. 

“I’m incredibly proud of the team for this achievement,” said Valerie McCain, waste treatment plant director. “What would be impressive in any year, but certainly in 2020, truly impressive. I think the team is resilient and they completed construction with safety and quality despite the unique challenges that we faced.” 

This achievement means the plant is closer than ever to turning low-activity radioactive waste into glass and disposing of it safely, in a process called vitrification. 

At the announcement event Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes said the process isn’t over yet and the plant is now looking forward to heating up its large melters that will vitrify millions of gallons of low-activity waste. 

McCain said she hopes they can begin heating the first melter during the final quarter of 2021. The melter must be heated to more than 2,100 degrees fahrenheit. 

During the announcement, McCain explained the significance of starting the melters. “It’s really the first critical step in our commissioning process,” she said. “When we do it, it’s a permanent step forward for the project. There’s no going back. We’re going to be moving forward at a good pace and going to be treating tank waste once we take that step.” 

The Hanford plant’s millions of gallons of waste are a byproduct of national defense plutonium-production efforts during World War II and the Cold War era. The waste is currently stored in 177 underground tanks. More than 60 of those tanks have leaked, contaminating the subsurface in the area and threatening the Columbia River. 

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) shared a recorded statement at the announcement of the completed construction. She said this progress has been 18 years in the making. She said this is the world’s largest plant to treat radioactive waste.

“Getting the direct-feed low-activity radioactive waste process on line means that we’re going to be on track to start treating about 50 million gallons of waste stored in Hanford’s underground tanks in 2023. This is an unprecedented step towards cleaning up the most toxic site in the United States,” Cantwell said. 

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D- Wash) also shared a recorded statement at the event to congratulate the Hanford team and reassure them that they’ll always have a partner in her. 

As Cantwell mentioned, the team now has their sights set on beginning treatment in 2023. 

At the end of his remarks, Menezes reassured the state of Washington and communities near the plant that they’re still moving toward the finish line. 

“We can and we will finish the race,” he said.   

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