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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Feds To Investigate Contamination Spread at Hanford

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Anna King
/
Northwest News Network
The Plutonium Finishing Plant at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Southeast Washington.

The U.S. Department of Energy is launching a federal investigation into a demolition site at the Hanford nuclear reservation where radioactive waste from the site has been spreading in unexplained ways.

Called the Plutonium Finishing Plant, it’s a massive factory building that the government is trying to tear down. But since last year, forty-two demolition workers have been found to have radioactive contamination in their bodies, dozens of cars were contaminated and more windblown specks of radioactive waste were found near a public highway.

The demo project has been idled since the winter -- even though the project is a year behind its “slab on grade” deadline. The state Department of Ecology and EPA have called for work to stop until officials can prove contamination won’t spread further.

Now, an arm of the U.S. Department of Energy is looking into the whole thing.

In a recent letter, the department informed CH2M Hill, the contractor in charge of the demolition, that it’s going to need documents and will be coming to town to interview workers.

The DOE continues to work on shoring up a large debris pile that is thought to be the source of much of this escaped material. It’s also doing a “root cause evaluation” and study what can be done to safely complete the demolition.

The Plutonium Finishing Plant was a large factory at Hanford that turned liquids containing plutonium into solid plutonium “buttons” during the Cold War.