Cold War relic at Hanford meets its end

Work is under way to demolish massive water-treatment facilities at the Hanford Site.

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As the blue Columbia River flows by in the background, a warning sign is a stark reminder of the Hanford Site's main purpose, to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs. (Andy Porter photo) (Jan. 6, 2010)

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An excavator bites into one of the dividing walls of the K West Reactor's settling basin. The reinforced concrete walls, 18 to 24 inches thick, were only part of the massive construction effort that created the reactor at the start of the Cold War. (Andy Porter photo) (Jan. 6, 2010)

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Mike Swartz, project manager, on the catwalk straddling two 60-inch diameter intake pipes that brought water from the Columbia River to the K West Reactor's basin. The massive structure is headed for demolition as part of the cleanup effort of the Hanford Site. (Andy Porter photo) (Jan. 6, 2010)

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The basin for the K East Reactor (reactor building in background) remains filled for now. The basin holds 3 million gallons of water which was used to cool the reactor when it was operating. Both K East and K West Reactors were shut down in the early 1970s. (Andy Porter photo) (Jan. 6, 2010)

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Watch your step! A warning sign inside the 320-foot long tunnel housing the K West Reactor's main water supply pipes. (Andy Porter photo) (Jan. 6, 2010)

RICHLAND -- Bit by bit here, another remnant of the Cold War is being chopped up and carted off to the proverbial dustbin of history.

Since December, crews have been demolishing the water treatment facilities that helped cool one of Hanford Site's largest reactors. The project is being accomplished years ahead of schedule thanks to $17.6 million in Recovery Act funds, said Geoff Tyree, U.S. Department of Energy spokesman.

A media tour Wednesday allowed a last look at the sprawling facility that provided the K West Reactor with cooling water as it produced plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal. The complex was one of two identical "jumbo" reactors built alongside the Columbia River during the Korean War as part of a $4 billion expansion of the Hanford Site, according to historian Michele Gerber.

Both the K West Reactor and its sister facility, the K East Reactor, have been shut down for decades. The K West Reactor went dark first in 1970 and the K East facility followed it in early 1971. Both will eventually be "cocooned" and the structures surrounding them, such as the water treatment facility, completely removed as part of the effort to clean up Hanford, which is one of the nation's most contaminated nuclear sites.

When the K West Reactor was operating, coolant water was pumped from the Columbia River at a rate of 140,000 gallons a minute through a pair of 5-foot diameter pipes to the 29,000 square-foot sedimentation basin. After being treated with chemicals to inhibit corrosion, it was sent through the reactor and then discharged back into the river.

In its day, the reactor's water treatment plant could filter about 300 million gallons a day, said Ray Larson, facility manager with contractor CH2M HILL. By comparison, the city of New Orleans uses about 125 million gallons of water a day, he said.

The basin at the K East Reactor today remains filled to provide water for firefighting, dust control and other uses. But the K West basin has been drained and is now being carved up by pincer-equipped excavators capable of cracking apart the basin's 18- to 24-inch thick reinforced concrete walls. Soon to follow will be dismantling of the pipe tunnel holding the massive supply lines as well as other structures.

Although the area around the silent reactors today is covered with a welter of equipment, containers, offices and other structures, the view in a few years will be much different, Tyree said. When the cleanup work is done, the only things remaining will be the entombed reactor cores and well heads used to monitor and support pumping out contaminated groundwater.

"By the end of 2015 what we expect to see here is desert," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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