There is no going back Hanford vitrification plant in eastern Washington after the world’s largest melting plant for radioactive waste began warming up Saturday, 20 years after construction began on the plant.

Area 580 square miles The Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland in eastern Washington produced about two-thirds of the nation’s plutonium for its nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War. The site was created as part of the Manhattan Project, and produced the plutonium that fueled the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II. Then, when the Cold War began, it ramped up production again, producing plutonium until 1987.

The uranium fuel irradiated at Hanford was chemically processed to remove the plutonium. A mixture of radioactive and other hazardous chemical waste from the reprocessing was stored in underground tanks, many of which are prone to leaks. They hold 56 million gallons of waste until it is processed for disposal.

The 300-tonne smelter, which began heating up on Saturday, must remain constantly hot around the clock as it first produces glass and then, for the first time, begins vitrifying radioactive waste in the nuclear fallout.

Vitrification prepares the waste for final disposal.

“Continuously removing waste from Hanford’s tanks and solidifying it is one of the most critical elements of the entire cleanup mission, and heating the smelter is an extremely important step in that process,” said David Riplog, vice president of the Tri- City. in federal programs and executive director of Hanford Communities, a coalition of local governments in the Hanford area.

The Energy Department’s goal is to begin vitrification of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks, some of it dating back to World War II, by the end of 2023.

1--MAIN--Hanford Smelter
Bechtel National

The heated melter is the first of two at the $17 billion low-level waste plant and is expected to operate continuously for at least five years.

“When we complete the warm-up of the first smelter, it will be another important step toward commissioning the waste treatment and immobilization plant for future operations,” said Val McCain, Bechtel National’s project director.

Bechtel was contracted to build, start up and commission a waste treatment or vitrification plant to prepare it for processing radioactive waste.

Courtesy of Bechtel National

The Energy Department and Bechtel plan to take a “disciplined approach” to heating the first smelter to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, said Brian Vance, manager of the Energy Department’s Hanford facility.

Workers are expected to spend about two weeks gradually heating up the melter as the glass beads are added in batches to melt during the initial test. The resulting molten glass will be poured into a stainless steel container and removed from the building.

Once the smelter is fully operational and begins processing radioactive waste, the vitrified radioactive waste produced there will be disposed of in an equipped landfill in downtown Hanford.

2-Capture Hanford tanks map (1).PNG
Courtesy of the Ministry of Energy

Initially, the vitrification plant will process only some of the least radioactive waste, called low-level waste.

Construction of the plant’s high-level waste facility has been largely halted since 2012, when technical issues were raised, prompting the Energy Department to shift its focus first to processing low-level waste.

The Department of Energy faces a federal court deadline to process high-level radioactive waste in addition to initial low-level waste processing by 2033, and by 2036, the vit plant.

Slow heat Hanford melter

Started heating in the village first melter using temporary start heaterswhile the heating is planned to be gradually transferred to the operational heaters as the molten glass rises in the melter and reaches their electrodes.

Bubblers will be inserted into the melter to mix the waste and prevent hot spots.

The heating is gradual to slowly dry the insulation in the melter.

The temperature of the melter cannot be lowered without damaging the melter’s insulation or the refractory material, which can harden and become ineffective if the temperature drops.

Once the melting point reaches 2100 degrees, the next month or two will be used to evaluate and test the initial process.

Courtesy of Bechtel National

Fluid Controls and Components of Richland is supplying 108,000 pounds of glass beads, or frits, needed to commission the low-level waste repository.

It simulates waste by dissolving into a solid form at high temperatures.

“This was the first time we’d ever dealt with frit,” said Russ Watson, Richland’s vice president, when the company was working on its first shipment. “The chemical and physical composition of the frit was very complex. The specifications were tight and the monitoring process was extensive.”

Lessons learned from warming up the first smelter will be used to start the same process for the second of two low-level waste plants.

Once both are up to operating temperature, the facility will heat a non-radioactive waste simulant in vitrifier containers in preparation for radioactive waste treatment.

Since the fusers have an expected life of five years, preparations have begun to assemble replacement fusers to be ready to replace the original fusers.

Hanford Vitrification Plant

Starting the first smelter “required a tremendous amount of hard work and determination,” Riplog said.

Significant progress has been made over the past two years prepare a vitrification installation to start recycling the waste, Vance said.

Hanford Waste Vitrification Plant VIT 8:2022.jpg
Bob Brody

At the beginning of 2021, the construction of the parts of the plant that will be necessary for the processing of low-level waste was completed.

The storage of low-level waste will be supported by the analytical laboratory of the vit plant, which will ensure the quality of the produced glass waste; a waste water management facility to help manage the waste generated during treatment; and 14 support structures that will provide services such as water treatment and electricity.

In the summer of 2021 Hanford workers finished construction of a 3,500-foot pipeline between the tank farms for the storage of waste to be treated and the vitrification plant.

The line uses a reinforced pipe-in-pipe to protect against leakage when the waste is moved to the vitrification plant in batches.

At the beginning of this year, work began on pre-treatment of waste from tanks to prepare it for vitrification.

The Tank Side Cesium Removal System, or TSCR, was launched in January as the first industrial processing of radioactive waste to prepare it for disposal in the history of the Hanford site.

Waste that has been pretreated to remove high-level radioactive components, allowing it to be treated as low-level waste, is stored until the vitrification plant starts up.

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Senior Staff Writer Annette Carey covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She was a news reporter in the Pacific Northwest for more than 30 years.