No job ever follows a routine pattern when working with the Hanford Nuclear Waste Site in southeast Washington. There simply remain constant reminders that the vast acreage was once a fertile breeding ground for nuclear operations. The cleanup offers continual reminders of how intricate that work was, how damaging that waste is and how unusual those sites are compared to a “traditional” construction site. 

As Washington Closure Hanford started work on the next phase of its $2.3 billion contract to clean up a 220-square-mile area along the banks of the Columbia River within the Hanford complex, known as the River Corridor, they not only started demolishing a nuclear reactor, but they took out a reminder of why that nuclear reactor was there in the first place: they removed a security guard tower. Nothing too dramatic, but still, a guard tower soaring above the reactor, with views up and down the river, serve as a reminder of the variety of competing interests that long stood at Hanford.

N Reactor operated from 1963 all the way until 1987—the longest running reactor in the Hanford complex—and was the only one in the nation that produced both plutonium and electricity. The guard tower reminded those that the Cold War provided security concerns, as the plutonium was created for the Department of Defense.

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Photo courtesy of Washington Closure Hanford

The guard tower was located on the 181-N Building, which was the reactor’s water intake structure. The 181-N Building, which will come down later this month, provided water from the Columbia River to cool the reactor during operation. The guard tower was the largest at Hanford, standing 62 feet tall and weighing more than 49,000 pounds.

“As part of N Reactor cleanup and interim safe storage of the facilities, workers have removed approximately 696,000 tons of contaminated material away from the Columbia River,” says Gary Snow, director of deactivation and demolition for Washington Closure. “The demolition of the guard tower stands as a reminder of the progress we are making by cleaning up the legacy waste along the River Corridor from Hanford’s plutonium production mission.”

Washington Closure is a limited liability company owned by URS, Bechtel and CH2M Hill.

The 10-year project is on target to be completed in 2015. Along with the N Reactor, which has been more than 95 percent “cocooned,” or placed into long-term safe storage, Washington Closure must demolish 109 reactor support facilities and clean 119 waste sites. To date, nearly 700,000 tons of contaminated and hazardous
material from N Area has been transported away from the Columbia River and disposed in a regulator-approved disposal facility.

Snow says they remain on schedule to stabilize the reactor and complete cleanup of the reactor’s support facilities by September.

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Photo courtesy of Washington Closure Hanford

In 1987, N Reactor shut down for maintenance, refueling and safety upgrades. The reactor never operated again. It was decommissioned when the Cold War ended in 1989, marking the beginning of the cleanup era at Hanford, an era that will stretch generations further than the actual uses of the Hanford production that still requires cleanup.

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