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Jan. 28, 2022

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Treatment to begin on waste at Hanford Site

Nuclear material to be turned into glass form for disposal

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KENNEWICK — The Hanford Site is close to starting the first large-scale pretreatment of the millions of gallons of radioactive waste stored for decades there.

In about two months it could start operating around the clock, preparing waste to be fed to the $17 billion vitrification plant to turn it into a stable glass form for disposal.

Hanford officials say that will be a historic moment.

“Being on the verge of the first use of large-scale tank waste treatment on the Hanford site is pretty doggone exciting,” said John Eschenberg, president of Hanford’s tank waste contractor, Washington River Protection Solution.

The Department of Energy announced last week that construction and the readiness assessment of the Tank-Side Cesium Removal, or TSCR, system at Hanford had been completed.

“What a lot of people don’t recognize is the start of tank waste treatment actually starts when TSCR operations begin, so we will be actually treating waste on the industrial scale in just a few months for the first time in the history of the site,” said Brian Vance, the DOE Hanford manager.

The system, placed next to a Hanford underground waste-storage tank, was developed in three years as a workaround to the Pretreatment Facility, which stands 12 stories high and covers an area larger than a football field at the vitrification plant.

The Pretreatment Facility was planned to separate waste into low-activity and high-level radioactive waste streams for treatment, but after possible technical issues related to high-level waste were identified in 2012, construction on the building stopped.

DOE changed course, deciding to start treating just low-activity radioactive waste first and delay treatment of high-level radioactive waste for more than a decade.

It estimates that about 90 percent of the waste in underground tanks could be treated and disposed of in a lined landfill at Hanford as low-activity waste.

The Hanford nuclear reservation adjacent to the Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington has 56 million gallons of tank waste left from the World War II and Cold War production of about two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium for its nuclear weapons program.

The current concern is that some of the underground storage tanks are prone to leaking.

“Treating Hanford’s tank waste is one of the most important elements of the entire cleanup, and the TSCR system is a critical piece of the puzzle,” said David Reeploeg, executive director of Hanford Communities and vice president for federal programs for the Tri-City Development Council.

“We’re glad to see that progress continues to be made on the path toward tank waste treatment,” he said.

TSCR can take the liquid portion of Hanford waste — the waste also includes sludge and saltcake — and separate out high-level radioactive constituents from it.

Low-activity radioactive waste is primarily liquid, but suspended, undissolved solids and radioactive cesium dissolved in the liquids are designated as high-level radioactive waste and must be removed if the waste is treated as low-activity waste.

The system will filter the liquid to remove solids and use an ion exchange system to remove cesium.

The system fits in three enclosures placed near a waste tank, the largest the size of a land-sea shipping container.

Eschenberg has no doubts that the small system will work.

“We are all highly confident in the technology and the simplicity of the system,” he said.

He led work to get a nearly identical system operating to prepare radioactive waste for vitrification at DOE’s Savannah River, S.C., site.

And simplified ion exchange systems have been used for a decade in the cleanup of contaminated water after the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster.

Hanford waste is more complex, containing a stew of radioactive and chemical contaminants from different plutonium-production methods used over decades at the Hanford site.

Batches of tank waste will need to be extensively surveyed, sampled and characterized to make sure they are compatible with glassification treatment at the vitrification plant, Eschenberg said.

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