The US government is working to “cocoon” old nuclear reactors
The costs of cleaning up a massive nuclear weapons complex in Washington state are typically expressed in the hundreds of billions of dollars and involve decades of work.
But a project on the Hanford nuclear reserve is progressing at a much lower price.
Federal government moves forward with ‘cocooning’ eight plutonium production reactors at Hanford that will place them in long-term storage to allow radiation inside to dissipate over a period of decades , until they can be dismantled and buried.
“It’s relatively inexpensive,” said Mark French, director of the US Department of Energy, of the cocooning. “The cost of trying to dismantle the reactor and demolish the reactor core would be extremely expensive and put workers at risk.”
The federal government built nine nuclear reactors in Hanford to make plutonium for atomic bombs during World War II and the Cold War. The site along the Columbia River contains the largest amount of radioactive waste in America.
The reactors are now shut down and lie like cement fortresses near the town of Richland in southeast Washington. Six have already been cocooned for long-term storage, and two more are moving in that direction. The ninth reactor was turned into a museum as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
While World War II ended in 1945 and the Cold War in 1989, the United States continues to pay billions of dollars per year for the disposal of nuclear waste produced by atomic weapons which played a significant role in the end of these conflicts. The biggest expense is handling a massive volume of liquid waste from the production of plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.
While the liquid waste stored in 177 underground tanks will require decades of work and hundreds of billions of dollars to clean up, efforts to secure the nine plutonium reactors are much closer to completion.
The last two reactors, shut down in 1970 and 1971, are about to enter the cocooning phase, when they are covered with steel and cement to prevent radioactivity from escaping into the environment, said French.
The cocoons are expected to last around 75 years by which time the radioactivity inside will have significantly decreased and there will likely be a plan for the final disposition of the remaining parts, French said.
Every five years, workers enter the reactor building to make sure there are no leaks or infestations from rodents or birds, he said.
The cleanup of Hanford, which has about 11,000 employees and is half the size of Rhode Island, began in the late 1980s and now costs about $ 2.5 billion a year. Work has been slowed down by technical issues, lack of funding, lawsuits from state regulators, worker exposure to radiation, and contractor turnover on complex work.
But the handling of old reactors is a positive point.
The nine reactors – called the B Reactor, C Reactor, D Reactor, DR Reactor, F Reactor, H Reactor, K-East Reactor, K-West Reactor, and N Reactor – were built from 1943 to 1965.
They were built next to the Columbia River due to the abundance of hydropower and cooling water required for the reactors while they were in operation.
All were cocooned except K-East and K-West. Cocooning work on the K-East reactor has already started and is expected to be completed by 2023, French said. Work on the K-West reactor is expected to be completed in 2026.
The cocoon plan for K-East and K-West is basically to build steel buildings around them. Each building is 158 feet (48.2 meters) long, 151 feet (46 meters) wide and 123 feet (37.5 meters) high, French said. The two steel buildings will cost less than $ 10 million each.
The government also operated five plutonium production reactors at the Savannah River site in South Carolina during the Cold War. All are also closed, although several reactor buildings are used to store radioactive materials.
Future generations will decide the final disposition of Hanford’s eight reactors, French said. They will likely be dismantled and buried in the central area of ââthe Hanford site, away from the river.
âRobots could be deployed in the futureâ for this work, French said.
Hanford watchdogs are generally okay with this process, said Tom Carpenter, director of the Seattle-based Hanford Challenge Watch Group.
âNo one is raising concerns about cocooning,â Carpenter said. âWe are all concerned about tank waste that requires immediate and urgent attention. “
The bigger question is whether future generations will be prepared to pay the huge costs of cleaning up Hanford, he said.
Carpenter said the estimated cost to completely clean only the waste from the tanks at the Hanford site is around $ 660 billion.
âIt’s pretty grim. It’s multigenerational, âhe said.
“It will cost more than anyone thought possible,” Carpenter said of the tank waste and other garbage that was dumped into the ground in Hanford. “It’s a hidden cost of (nuclear) accumulation.”
By then, there could be bigger fiscal concerns such as dealing with the effects of climate change, Carpenter said.
The most intriguing of the old reactors is Reactor B, the first built during WWII. It will not be cocooned, and can be visited by tourists at the national historic park. Reactor B, which closed in 1968, has been cleaned enough to allow some 10,000 tourists to visit each year and learn about Hanford’s history. It has been designated a national historic monument.
Plutonium from Reactor B at Hanford was used to test the world’s first atomic bomb in July 1945. Called the Trinity Test, the bomb exploded in the New Mexico desert. Hanford plutonium was also used for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945.