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The Plutonium Gang: CH2M Hill Dismantles the Hanford Nuclear Site


The Plutonium Gang: CH2M Hill Dismantles the Hanford Nuclear Site

Photograph by Steve Featherstone for Bloomberg Businessweek

Before entering the shuttered Plutonium Finishing Plant at the Hanford Site, Jerry Long hangs his identification badge on a board outside the entrance, so rescue crews can easily figure out who’s inside, should it come to that. “This is a no-kidding hazardous category 2 nuclear facility,” says Long as he enters a brightly lit room furnished with rows of metal chairs and benches. The U.S. Department of Energy reserves that category for sites that might blow up, or, as they like to call it, experience a “criticality event.”

Rolling racks of neatly folded cotton coveralls stand against the walls. Long has a trim goatee and blue eyes that always appear narrowed in concentration, which is a good quality for a man working in a plant that contains enough residual plutonium to build 10 bombs the size of the one that destroyed Nagasaki.

He and four others carefully pull on coveralls, rubber shoe coverings, and surgical gloves. They seal the cuffs and seams with masking tape. Then they check the two cards dangling around their necks. One, which resembles a thick credit card, tallies exposure to gamma radiation. The other is called a PNAD, short for personal nuclear accident dosimeter. It records sudden bursts of neutrons, the kind of radiation released in atomic blasts and nuclear reactor meltdowns. The workers call it the “death chip.”

The Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford is one of the most dangerous workplaces in the world. From 1944 to 1989 it produced 74,000 tons of weapons-grade plutonium-239. Nearly two-thirds of all the plutonium in the U.S. military’s nuclear arsenal was refined here, and the plant is highly contaminated with not only plutonium but also byproducts such as hexavalent chromium, made infamous by Erin Brockovich. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that over the years some 450 billion gallons of industrial and radiological contaminants were dumped directly into the soil. Some of it was stored, and Hanford’s aging complex of 177 underground tanks contain 53 million gallons of chemicals and radioactive liquids; 67 of the tanks have together leaked more than a million gallons. The DOE recently identified six more tanks that have sprung leaks, further threatening water supplies for millions across the Northwest.

Long is overseeing the plant closure for CH2M Hill, a 30,000-employee global engineering company based in Englewood, Colo. CH2M Hill specializes in projects very few others can manage, from cleaning up nuclear waste sites to widening the Panama Canal. In 2012 it billed some $6.4 billion. Hanford, which is CH2M Hill’s biggest job—about 4 percent of total business—may be the trickiest of all. “Every hazard that you can reasonably think of is present at this facility,” Long says. “Electrical hazards. Chemical hazards. Radioactivity hazards. We’ve got your standard ergonomic hazards. We’ve got industrial hazards. We’re dealing with a small chemical spill right now.”

Many rooms in the plant, which has the appearance and dimensions of a large maximum security prison, contain high levels of airborne radioactive particles, requiring workers to wear respirator hoods and air filters. Some rooms, such as the americium recovery room, are so contaminated, workers can enter them only through portable air locks and connected to air hoses like astronauts exploring another planet. Although americium-241 is highly radioactive, minuscule amounts of it can be found in smoke detectors. In 2004, British authorities arrested an al-Qaeda operative who was planning to make a radiological “dirty bomb” from thousands of the detectors.The face of the K-East reactor core. The grid in the middle is a series of aluminum tubes that once held uranium fuel rodsPhotograph by Steve FeatherstoneThe face of the K-East reactor core. The grid in the middle is a series of aluminum tubes that once held uranium fuel rods

Long stops in front of a door. Inside this room, he explains, is glovebox HA-23S. Gloveboxes are common in laboratories; they are sealed, usually clear boxes in which technicians handle hazardous material via two gloves attached to holes in the side. But this is not a normal glovebox. It is 16 feet tall, 4 feet wide, and 11 feet long, and was used to store containers of plutonium for 38 years. Built of stainless steel and leaded glass 3/16 of an inch thick, it weighs 10 tons. Hanford, at its peak, used 232 such gloveboxes. There are 55 left to demolish.

HA-23S is the largest and most complex box that Long’s decontamination and demolition teams have tackled so far. Workers have spent 18 months cleaning it, painting it, splitting it in half, wrapping the pieces in plastic, and finally, hoisting the pieces onto a trolley. From there, HA-23S will be put in a special container and shipped off-site to be cut up and buried. “We had zero contamination release and nothing on the knives we used to cut the plastic,” Long says. “It took a little time to do that, and it cost a little money, but the results are undeniable.”

HA-23S has been a bottleneck in the demolition process at the plant, and Long is eager to be rid of it. Once it’s out of the way, his teams can start dismantling 10 other gloveboxes wedged behind it. But he’ll have to wait a few more days. Earlier that week, a technician discovered a pipe leaking nitric acid in another part of the plant, temporarily shutting down all activity. “It’s not like a Coca-Cola bottling company that’s been pumping out cases of Coke and everything works pretty much OK,” Long says, closing the door on HA-23S. “You can’t know everything, so we plan for the unexpected.”

Inside the Plutonium Finishing Plant: A technician at work on a gloveboxPhotograph by Steve FeatherstoneInside the Plutonium Finishing Plant: A technician at work on a glovebox

In 1944 the amount of plutonium-239 in the world wouldn’t fill a thimble. The following year the U.S. detonated two atomic bombs; the one over Nagasaki contained more than 20 pounds of plutonium-239. All of it was manufactured at the Hanford Engineer Works, a vast industrial complex built on 586 square miles of remote desert scrubland in south central Washington State as part of the Manhattan Project.

As with all nuclear facilities, Hanford was built near water, in this case the Columbia River, for cooling. Hanford is home to the world’s first full-scale reactor and thousands of other structures, from pump houses and research labs to chemical-separation plants and storage tanks. As a cleanup site, it’s rivaled in size only by Chernobyl and Fukushima, and lessons learned here are already being applied in Japan.

The DOE has divided Hanford into three cleanup zones: the central plateau, home of the Plutonium Finishing Plant; the river corridor, where the nuclear reactors reside; and the tank farm, where the leaks are. Since 2008, CH2M Hill has been the lead contractor in the central plateau.

Founded in 1946 by three Oregon State University civil engineering students named Cornell, Howland, and Hayes, and a professor named Merryfield (Hill was added in 1971 after the company merged with another engineering firm), CH2M Hill is among the largest companies in the engineering and construction trade. The employee-owned business is a relative newcomer to the nuclear cleanup industry. It started out in water management; building water treatment facilities, desalination plants, and pipelines is still the company’s core business. “Water will be our moniker forever,” says Lee McIntire, CH2M Hill’s chairman and chief executive officer. With the world facing chronic shortages of what McIntire calls “the big three—water, food, and energy,” it’s a growth industry. “You really can’t make more water,” he says.

In a way, Hanford is just another water management project, albeit an enormously tough one. The DOE’s top priority here is protecting the 51-mile stretch of the Columbia River that sweeps along the northern boundary of the site. CH2M Hill recently completed construction of a $335 million groundwater treatment plant that over the coming decades will prevent Hanford’s massive reservoir of poisons from leaching into the river. The plant is the centerpiece in a system of wells, pipes, and pumping stations that extracts contaminated groundwater, filters it, and injects the clean water back into the ground.

Along with bigger competitors such as Bechtel and Fluor (FLR), CH2M Hill is a likely contender for contracts to clean up the Fukushima disaster; it has hosted Japanese delegations to Hanford and another DOE nuclear waste site in Idaho. “A lot of experimentation has gone on at these DOE sites,” McIntire says. “The technologies are known, proven, tested. We know which ones are most cost-effective, which ones don’t work.”

CH2M Hill cut its teeth in the nuclear cleanup business at the Rocky Flats complex outside Denver, not far from the company’s headquarters. That’s where Hanford’s plutonium was machined into triggers for nuclear warheads. Rocky Flats was much smaller than Hanford, but it was severely contaminated. When CH2M Hill began decontamination work in 1995, a paint chip falling off a wall was enough to set off airborne radiation alarms. In partnership with Kaiser Group, CH2M Hill removed 14 metric tons of nuclear material and demolished all 800 buildings at Rocky Flats, completely erasing the complex from the landscape. They finished the $7 billion project in 2005, 60 years ahead of schedule and $30 billion under cost, according to DOE estimates made in 1995. Nothing like it had ever been done at a nuclear weapons complex before or since. Today, Rocky Flats is a National Wildlife Refuge, 5,000 acres of native tallgrass prairie at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. A small fraction of the site still contains chemical and radiological contaminants—the half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years—but at levels way below safety benchmarks set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Colorado.

Of the 1,200 people that CH2M Hill employs at Hanford, about 480 work at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, known to the workers as the PFP. Providing them with personal protective equipment costs $33,000 per day. In extremely contaminated areas of the plant, it takes dozens of people to help suit up and undress the decontamination and demolition teams, who might, if they’re lucky, squeeze in four hours of “hands-on-tools” time during an eight-hour shift. CH2M Hill has contracted to finish demolishing the PFP by 2016, which seems optimistic. Some of the remaining 55 gloveboxes are much bigger than HA-23S, which will have taken five years to remove from start to finish.

The finishing plant is the most contaminated building at Hanford. It was the final stop in Hanford’s plutonium production process, where nuclear chemical operators transformed plutonium nitrate solution into pure plutonium metal “buttons” the size of hockey pucks. Much of the process happened by hand.

An old Hanford joke suggests that PFP stands for “people fondling plutonium,” but operators never actually touched the stuff. They manipulated it through the gloveboxes, in which about one-third of the residual plutonium is trapped. The precautions may have worked. A 2006 study by the National Cancer Institute found no increase in cancer rates near the Hanford site. As for HA-23S, it was built in 1951 to store jars of plutonium oxide powder and plutonium buttons, which rotated through the glovebox’s four levels on a system of elevators and conveyor belts. It’s heavily contaminated with plutonium dust that wafts like talcum powder when disturbed. An inhaled speck could lodge in a person’s lungs, causing cancerous tumors. To minimize the potential for contamination, workers have had to reverse engineer HA-23S, essentially unbuilding it from the inside using the glove ports. It’s roughly equivalent to removing a car’s engine through its headlights. “Everything we do is custom,” says Long. “There is no exotic approach that we can take. It really is men in there with tools like you have in your garage.”Inside the Plutonium Finishing Plant: An old control panelPhotograph by Steve FeatherstoneInside the Plutonium Finishing Plant: An old control panel

Fluor, the company in charge of the PFP closure project before CH2M Hill won the contract, began dismantling HA-23S in 2007. Fluor’s engineers created a detailed 3D rendering based on classified blueprints and photos culled from Hanford’s archives. The rendering allowed workers to visualize what was behind the glovebox’s fogged windowpanes, helping them plan how to gut it without opening it up. “It was assembled with things wide open and clean, and you could work right inside the box,” says Toby Adair, a CH2M Hill fieldwork supervisor leading the seven-man HA-23S removal team. “Now you’re taking it apart with all of these additional hazards that came from production, so it’s completely different.” Three tons of equipment and lead shielding had been stripped out of HA-23S when CH2M Hill took over in 2009. It was a metal shell coated on the inside with plutonium dust, with rows of white gloves hanging limply from its glove ports. Some of the gloves were decades old. A pinhole breach in just one of them could cause a crisis. “If you put plutonium oxide on the head of a pin and dropped that on the ground, it would contaminate a lot of rooms,” says Mike Swartz, deputy vice president of the PFP closure project. “A little goes a long way.”

After installing 100 new gloves in HA-23S, Adair’s team sprayed a chemical fixative inside the box, which bound with the plutonium residue. Once the fixative flaked off, they swept it into plastic bags and swabbed all the surfaces with damp rags. Radiation control technicians were on hand to scan every rag, bag, and brush to ensure that the amount of plutonium in a particular corner of the glovebox or inside a waste container didn’t exceed a certain threshold. Concentrating fissile material in one place could result in a criticality event—a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction—the same principle behind an atomic bomb. It wouldn’t necessarily explode, but for those unlucky enough to be in the room, the blue flash they’d see would be their eyeballs melting. Death would come within days. The final step in the three-month decontamination process involved painting the interior of HA-23S to prevent any remaining plutonium dust from flying around when the time came to wheel it out of the plant.

HA-23S was about ready to go out the door, but there was one problem: It wouldn’t fit. Cutting it up in place wasn’t an option. “We wiped it down, we deconned, we painted the inside, but you can’t totally decon something to where it’s completely clean,” says Adair. “Plutonium will go where it wants to go.” Schematics showed that HA-23S was made of two sections held together by 240 flange bolts. Adair’s team devised a plan to separate the sections and remove it in two pieces using a portable gantry crane. The trick was keeping plutonium dust from escaping a box that had been sealed for 60 years. The solution was to wrap the sections in a thick plastic sleeve, then cut and seal the sleeve as the sections came apart. Adair’s team had to nail it on the first try. They couldn’t leave five tons of contaminated steel hanging from the crane on a set of chains.

They taped out the room’s dimensions on the floor of a clean building and practiced for months, rigging and hoisting a full-scale wooden mock-up of HA-23S. Every movement of the 30-man removal team was choreographed, every inch of plastic accounted for. Last October, five years after work began on HA-23S, Adair’s team executed their plan. “We didn’t even have a pop” on the airborne radiation detectors, says Adair. “No contamination. That is remarkable.” When they wheeled the glovebox sections out the door, they had a half-inch to spare on both sides.

After they’ve finished with the gloveboxes, it’s on to 86 pencil tanks—long, thin tanks that hold liquid plutonium fluoride in a configuration designed to prevent a criticality event—followed by the chemical process lines and the ventilation system. In a couple of years it will all be torn out, packaged, and hauled away to a special nuclear waste site in New Mexico or buried in landfill at Hanford.

For some, the demolition is bittersweet. Long, who left the project in July, feels the melancholy of dismantling a piece of history. “When we take the excavators to this facility to tear it down, you will have a lot of people watching that with tears in their eyes,” he says. “There is no other place like this in the world.” Many of CH2M Hill’s workers are second- or third-generation Hanford veterans. Their grandparents came to this windblown corner of Washington to build a secret atomic city. They grew up in prefab houses built by the federal government, in neighborhoods planned by Army engineers, and went to high school where the mascot was a mushroom cloud. Those houses, neighborhoods, and school are still around, as are many of the people who remember the days when even mentioning the word “plutonium” earned you a visit from the military police. But Hanford is disappearing bit by bit. In three years, the PFP will be a slab of concrete in the desert.

Featherstone is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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