RICHLAND, WA — Radioactive contamination is spreading inside a deteriorating processing plant on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state that was last used in the 1950s and 1960s to process plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
The Tri-City Herald newspaper reported Monday that the facility is known as REDOX. It is located deep within the sprawling and heavily guarded Hanford site, which is half the size of Rhode Island, and the contamination poses no threat to the general public.
A new report recommends spending $181 million on interim cleanup and maintenance of the abandoned plant. REDOX is not scheduled to be demolished until about 2032, or possibly later.
The report said doing some work on the building soon could reduce the threat of contamination spreading outside the building. Animals that get inside could spread the contamination, or it could spread if a fire breaks out in the building or its utility pipes break, the report said.
REDOX was used from 1952-1967 to process about 24,000 tons of irradiated uranium fuel rods to remove plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.
The report by the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns Hanford, said annual inspections of the highly contaminated plant from 2012-15 found that radioactive contamination was spreading, including by precipitation that leaked into the building through its roof and joints.
Signs of animal intrusion and deteriorating asbestos were also found in several areas, the report said.
No one has entered the main part of the plant since 1997.
Contamination could be slowed and contained by demolishing a contaminated nearby building plus the main plant's attached annexes, the report said.
Two underground storage tanks that contained the chemical hexone that was used to make plutonium should also be removed, the report said.
The report suggested that doing the work to limit the spread of contamination would help officials retain workers with experience in decommissioning nuclear facilities at Hanford.
They will be needed as more federal money becomes available in the future for environmental cleanup, the report said.