At the Plutonium Finishing Plant at
Hanford, wastes are heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius in this
chamber to remove moisture, eliminate explosive gases and reduce
WHEN THE COLD WAR ENDED, America's
shut down so rapidly that weapons-grade isotopes were left
stranded, so to speak,
on the assembly line.
The United States had produced 100 finished tons
of plutonium from which to
fashion warheads. Fifty-three of those tons were made at Hanford.
Another 26 tons
were in intermediate steps before weapons fabrication.
Dealing with these leftovers has become one of
the top cleanup priorities
at Hanford Site in Eastern Washington. The Seattle Times recently
got a rare peek
at the plutonium-storage vaults there, encased in a windowless
and locked behind 5,000-pound doors.
Hanford's Plutonium Finishing Plant is the
factory where liquid-nitrate
solutions of plutonium from the nuclear reservation's Purex Plant
were turned into
palm-sized silvery "buttons" that could be machined into
Each button cost $2.8 million to produce, and
the laborious process of
going from liquid to solid metal took about two weeks. Technicians
used soft gold
drills to probe button interiors, testing for quality.
"This is probably the most secure place in
all of Hanford,"
manager Rick Redekopp said as we laboriously "suited up"
to enter the
finishing plant. The plutonium was manufactured on a conveyer belt
metal and glass and accessed by "glove boxes," or
windows fitted with
shielded gloves through which workers could purify the metal.
Abrupt shutdown left a residue of plutonium and
chemicals along the gritty
conveyer line. Now workers are carefully scraping off the gunk,
heating it in
small ovens to 1,000 degrees Celsius to burn off potentially
explosive gases and
reduce its volume, and then packing it in lead-lined cans, one
inside another. They look like large food cans.
If all this waste were stacked together, the
could spark a chain reaction and a fire or meltdown. Accordingly,
the cans are
taken to the plutonium storage vault and stored inside lockers,
each can on its
own bracket to keep it from coming into contact with the others.
They will remain at Hanford for the foreseeable
future. While the plutonium
will persist for tens of thousands of years, no decision has been
made about its
long-term fate. It could be turned into glass and buried, or
The storage vault is monitored by the
International Atomic Energy Agency,
the same United Nations body that polices Iraq. "We can't
move it without
them knowing about it," Redekopp said.
Caution about radiation soars as one nears the
plutonium vault. One passes
several checkpoints, is escorted by an armed guard, and is offered
a lead vest
plus two electronic radiation dosimeters, another called a
three radiation badges.
Terrorists could not use the unrefined plutonium
powder salvaged from the
assembly line to make a bomb. But it would represent an enormous
shortcut for a
country trying to fabricate bomb-quality material. It could also
be used to salt a
conventional explosive that would spew radioactive dust across a
Plutonium was not the only radioactive material
stranded when weapons
production ended. Next to the abandoned K reactors (new reactor
designated with letters of the alphabet), which were used to make
uranium fuel rods, water storage basins hold 300 tons of
weapons-grade fuel and
1,800 tons of ordinary reactor fuel.
New doors to prevent the 40-year-old pools from
breaching in an earthquake
have been installed. Meanwhile, plans are being completed to move
this mess to dry
storage, where it is less likely to contaminate the environment.
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