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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 Say Hanford’s PUREX Plant Is Degrading, Needs Stabilizing Soon

Courtesy Michele Gerber
File photo of Hanford's PUREX plant.

A new federal report says that a massive building at the Hanford Nuclear Site is worse off than managers thought. 

The so-called PUREX -- Plutonium Uranium Extraction -- plant isn’t clean. Starting in 1956 the plant processed loads of plutonium. Its walls are up to 6 feet thick, and it’s as long as three football fields.

PUREX is located within Hanford’s 200 East Area. It’s about 7 miles from the Columbia River and 5 miles from State Highway 240.

Locals call these large buildings with deep underground walls “canyons.” They’re also called “Queen Marys” because of their long shape resembling ocean liners sailing amid the sagebrush.  

Now, the behemoth canyon is slowly degrading. Final cleanup isn’t slated for more than a decade, around 2032. After studying the PUREX plant, the federal government has just released a new plan that would stabilize the building for now. But it’s hard to balance all the urgent cleanups on the site, according to Theresa Howell with the Washington State Department of Ecology. There’s 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge stored in aging underground tanks, too. 

“It’s an ongoing struggle at Hanford to continue to get funding to address all of the risks out there,” Howell said. “So this is one way to get a little bit of movement forward.”

If not dealt with soon, Washington state officials say they worry the PUREX plant will contaminate the environment. 

The new federal report underscores that worry, saying: “...the 202A Building [PUREX] has degraded. Spread of contamination has been observed throughout the building and has the potential to continue as the facilities degrade.”

Besides PUREX, there are three similar facilities at Hanford that need to be torn down: U Plant, REDOX and B Plant

The federal government has a public comment period that ends on August 2. Comments are being collected here. Washington state officials are also collecting comments until Aug. 10, here.

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.