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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.

Workers Set To Empty Hanford's Infamous K-Basin Of Radioactive Sludge

U.S. Department of Energy
CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company Sludge Removal Project workers prepare for DOE Operational Readiness Review in the 100 K Reactor Area.

Workers plan to tackle some of the nastiest waste on the massive Hanford cleanup site next month. The so-called K-Basin holds sandy, explosive, potentially flammable and highly-radioactive sludge stored in six large containers.

The sludge is in an aging concrete basin full of water only 400 yards from the Columbia River. Workers have practiced sucking fake sludge out of the basin through special-shielded hoses into stainless steel containers on truck trailers.

Rod Lobos is the lead watchdog for the federal Environmental Protection Agency on the project.

“It’s probably one of the bigger risks to the river, just because of the proximity. It is very close,” he said. “So, removing the sludge from K Basins and moving it to the Central Plateau really reduces the risk to the river.”

If the sludge is exposed to air it will catch fire, so everything to retrieve it has to be done carefully underwater. The sludge is highly abrasive, highly radioactive and very dense so it’s difficult to pump and work with.

In a statement, Department of Energy Richland Operations Office Manager Doug Shoop said:

“Our top priority is safety as we remove this highly contaminated sludge from the basin near the Columbia River. The sludge is some of the most hazardous material at Hanford, so moving it away from the river to safe storage in a robust engineered facility in the center of the site significantly reduces risk. The mockup at the Maintenance and Storage Facility, where we tested all of the equipment and processes that will be used to remove the sludge, was critical to the preparations that have brought us to this point. The contractor’s operational readiness review provided valuable insight and lessons that will help us focus on safety, and the Department began its own readiness review this week that will afford us an additional opportunity to ensure we are ready to begin removal and transfer of the sludge.”

The two K-Basins were originally built for a 20-year mission. They were already beyond their life span when the leftover uranium rods were placed in them decades ago. The canistered sludge will be trucked about 12 miles across Hanford to a building called the T Plant for temporary storage, until the federal government decides how best to treat and where to ultimately store this waste.

This radioactive sludge is what’s left of 100,000 uranium fuel rods left to corrode after the Cold War ended.

Credit U.S. Department of Energy
U.S. Department of Energy
Workers step through procedures in the 100 K Reactor Area in preparation for the DOE Operational Readiness Review.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.