U.S. government is working on an old “cocoon” reactor

Spokane, Washington (AP) — The cost of purifying a large nuclear weapons complex in Washington is typically in the hundreds of billions of dollars and involves decades of work.

However, one project on the Hanford Nuclear Reserve is underway at a much lower price.

The federal government is working on the “cocoons” of eight plutonium-producing reactors in Hanford, which will radiate internal radiation for decades before they can be stored for long periods of time and dismantled and buried. I will be able to do it.

“It’s relatively cheap,” said Mark French, a US Department of Energy manager, about cocoons. “The cost of dismantling a nuclear reactor and trying to dismantle the core is very high and puts workers at risk.”

The federal government built nine reactors in Hanford to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs during World War II and the Cold War. The site along the Columbia River contains the highest amount of radioactive waste in the United States.

The reactor is currently closed and sits like a cement fortress near the city of Richland in southeastern Washington. Six have already been cocooned for long-term storage, and two are heading in that direction. The ninth reactor became a museum as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Although World War II ended in 1945 and the Cold War ended in 1989, the United States still spends years disposing of nuclear waste generated by nuclear weapons that played a major role in ending these conflicts. I’m paying billions of dollars. The biggest expense is to dispose of the large amount of liquid waste left over from the production of plutonium, an important component of nuclear weapons.

The effluent stored in 177 underground tanks requires decades of work and hundreds of billions of dollars to clean up, but efforts to secure nine plutonium reactors are nearing completion.

According to the French, the last two reactors, which were closed in 1970 and 1971, are about to enter the cocoon stage, covered with steel and cement to prevent radiation from escaping into the environment.

The cocoons are expected to last for about 75 years, by which time internal radioactivity has dropped dramatically, and there are probably plans for final disposal of the rest, the French said.

Workers enter the reactor containment every five years to ensure that there are no leaks or rodents or bird invasions, he said.

Cleaning Hanford, half the size of Rhode Island, with approximately 11,000 employees, began in the late 1980s and now costs about $ 2.5 billion annually. Work has been delayed due to technical issues, lack of funding, lawsuits from state regulators, radiation exposure to workers, and contractor turnover in complex jobs.

However, the handling of old reactors is a bright point.

Nine reactors called B Reactor, C Reactor, D Reactor, DR Reactor, F Reactor, H Reactor, K-East Reactor, K-West Reactor, and N Reactor were established in 1943. It was built from 1965 to 1965.

They were built next to the Columbia River due to the abundant hydropower and cooling water required by the reactor during operation.

Everything is cocooned, except for K-East and K-West. According to the French, work on the cocoons of the K-East reactor has already begun and is expected to be completed by 2023. Work on the K-West reactor is expected to be completed in 2026.

The K-East and K-West cocoon plans are basically to build steel-framed buildings around them. According to the French, each building is 158 feet (48.2 meters) long, 151 feet (46 meters) wide and 123 feet (37.5 meters) high. The cost of each of the two steel buildings is less than $ 10 million.

According to the French, future generations will decide on the final disposal of eight reactors. They can be dismantled and buried in the central area of ​​Hanford Site, away from the river.

“Robots may be deployed in the future,” the French said for the job.

Tom Carpenter, director of the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge, said Hanford Watchdog generally agreed with the process.

“No one has expressed concern about the cocoons,” Carpenter said. “We are all worried about tank waste that needs urgent and urgent action.”

The bigger question, he said, is whether future generations willingly pay the enormous costs of cleaning Hanford.

According to Carpenter, the estimated cost of completely purifying only tank waste at the Hanford Site is about $ 660 billion.

“It’s pretty tough. It’s multi-generational,” he said.

“This will cost more than everyone thought it would be possible,” Carpenter said of tank waste and other waste dumped on Hanford’s ground. “It’s the hidden cost of (nuclear) accumulation.”

By then, there may be greater budget concerns, such as addressing the effects of climate change, Carpenter said.

The most interesting of the old reactors is the B reactor, which was first built during World War II. It does not become a cocoon and can be visited by tourists at the National Historical Park. The B reactor, which was closed in 1968, was thoroughly cleaned so that about 10,000 tourists could visit it each year and learn about Hanford’s history. It is designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Plutonium from Hanford’s B reactor was used in July 1945 to test the world’s first nuclear bomb. Called the Trinity Test, the bomb was blown up in the New Mexico desert. Hanford plutonium was also used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.