The process of clearing The McCluskey Room inside the Dept. of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Waste Site in Eastern Washington comes full of complications. But at least we get video to watch it all.
As DOE and CH2M Hill workers enter one of the most hazardous places on the entire Hanford campus—a room named after a worker injured there in a Cold War-era accident in 1976—the intricate process requires precision and documentation.
A crew with contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company used specially designed suits to protect them from contamination before entering the site’s Plutonium Finishing Plant early last week. The equipment they’ll use include abrasion resistant suits that protect from surface contamination and chemicals and devices within the suits that allow for communicating within the room and for monitoring air inside the suit. A dual-purpose pressurized air system will provide cool air for breathing and cool air throughout the suit for work comfort, all with the protection of airborne contaminants.
One of the first tasks once inside the room was improving ventilation and airflow to better protect workers from the airborne contamination in the room. You can watch a video of the crew's initial entry below. (And you can watch a segment of the Emmy Award-winning documentary, called The Hanford Site, here.)
“This was the first of multiple entries workers will make to clean out processing equipment and get the McCluskey Room ready for demolition along with the rest of the plant,” Bryan Foley, federal project director for the Dept. of Energy, says in a statement. “It has taken a year to prepare for this first entry. The time and effort workers put into finding the right equipment and training will ensure they are as prepared as possible to remain safe during the cleanup.”
The next year will entail removing large pieces of processing equipment.
The room was used to recover americium—a highly radioactive plutonium byproduct—during the Cold War. Workers commonly refer to the space as the “McCluskey Room” after worker Harold McCluskey was injured in 1976 when a vessel inside a glove box burst and exposed him to radioactive material. McCluskey, who was 64 at the time, lived for 11 more years and died from causes not related to the accident.
Inside the room, workers can expect airborne radioactivity, surface contamination, confined spaces and poor ventilation. To prepare, workers traveled last year to a similarly contaminated DOE site in Idaho and observed the use of specialized air systems and protective suits, strategies they’ll employ at Hanford.
“The employees helped choose the equipment, trained on the equipment, and gave us feedback on its performance in training,” Mike Swartz, CH2M HILL’s vice president for the Plutonium Finishing Plant Closure Project, says in a statement. “Their input helped us make some adjustments along the way and has been the key to being able to enter the room safely as we start this challenging cleanup project.”
Since 2008, crews have been preparing the Plutonium Finishing Plant for demolition by removing much of the equipment and infrastructure inside the building that was once used for plutonium processing. Of the plant’s 238 glove boxes, 212 have been removed or cleaned out and readied for removal during demolition. Out of 81 buildings that made up the plant during its history, 63 have been removed.
Now comes the trickiest part.
Tim Newcomb is Engineering News-Record’s Pacific Northwest contributor. He also writes for Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated and more. You can follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb or visit his website here.