Questions on Hanford cleanup

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RICHLAND -- The Hanford Nuclear Reservation produced the plutonium for the bomb the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, effectively ending World War II. Today it confronts the environmental mess left behind and the federal government's inability, over nearly a quarter-century, to rid Hanford of 56 million gallons of toxic waste cached in aging underground tanks.

What is Hanford today?

Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. and one of the most complex environmental cleanup projects in the world. The 586-square-mile site borders the Columbia River, the largest in the Pacific Northwest, and is home to some of the most dangerous nuclear waste on the planet.

How long did it operate?

The federal government began building the first nuclear reactor at Hanford in 1943. The last reactor shut down in 1987.

When did cleanup begin?

The state of Washington, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy signed a legally binding agreement in 1989 to clean up Hanford. The work entails decontaminating and tearing down buildings, mothballing old reactors, digging up buried debris, treating groundwater and dealing with millions of gallons of liquid and mud-like sludge that is highly toxic and radioactive.

What's been done there?

Two of the three projects that were deemed significant for the environment and public safety are done: All weapons-grade plutonium has been removed from the site, and workers removed spent nuclear fuel from two leak-prone pools of water near the Columbia River. They've dug up hundreds of waste sites, demolished contaminated buildings and mothballed five of the nine reactors.

Why is it taking so long?

The dangerous contaminants -- many of them unknown, because workers failed to keep records or because substances reacted with each other over the years -- make for tedious, technically challenging work. In some cases, new technologies must be developed. A vitrification plant, to encase the underground tank waste in glass for long-term disposal, is being designed as it's built; its deadline has been missed at least five times.

When will the work be done?

The cleanup agreement originally called for all tank waste to be treated by 2028 and for most of the remaining cleanup to be completed by 2035. That date excluded ongoing efforts to treat contaminated groundwater, to develop a permanent plan for the nuclear reactor cores, which are being mothballed for just 75 years, and long-term stewardship of the site. The Energy Department's latest schedule now calls for tank waste to be treated by 2047, with groundwater cleanup and some other activities continuing through 2070.