End near for Hanford processing plant

Site once produced much of U.S. plutonium for nuclear weapons

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The main processing facility of Hanford’s Plutonium Finishing Plant started to fall this week, putting the end in sight for cleanup of the plant after two decades of work.

The main part of the plant is nicknamed “Z Plant” because it was the last stop for plutonium production at Hanford.

During the Cold War about two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium for its nuclear weapons program came off of Z Plant’s two production lines. Plutonium in a liquid solution was turned into buttons the size of hockey pucks and oxide powder there for shipment to a weapons plant from 1949 to 1989.

Work has been underway since the 1990s, including stabilizing plutonium left at the plant when it shut down.

Then extensive work was done on the highly contaminated equipment within the plant before demolition using heavy equipment began in November.

Workers removed about 200 pieces of processing equipment, including glove boxes. They also removed 1.5 miles of ventilation piping and process lines contaminated with plutonium.

DOE said that some of the work, such as removing two highly contaminated glove boxes, was among the most hazardous work conducted across the nationwide DOE complex.

Already the plant’s ventilation building and its McCluskey Room — heavily contaminated after a 1976 explosion that injured worker Harold McCluskey — have been demolished. The 200-foot ventilation stack came down in an explosive demolition earlier this month.

Part of the plant’s Plutonium Reclamation Facility, added to one end of the main plant, already has been partly demolished.

On Wednesday demolition started at the Z Plant in one of its least contaminated areas, a single-story building that included a locker area and other areas needed to help workers safely enter and exit more contaminated areas of the plant.

Work will proceed from the outside toward the inside of Z Plant, while a second demolition team continues demolition of the Plutonium Reclamation Facility.