Deadly Radioactive Waste 1000 Feet From the Columbia River

Active cleanup halted at Hanford’s 324-Building

A Surprising Announcement

Photo: Hanford Site Map, Courtesy of Dept. of Energy
Photo: Hanford Site Map, Courtesy of Dept. of Energy

On June 29, 2023, in a nondescript email sent through the Hanford Advisory Board list-serve,  the U.S. Dept. of Energy (“Energy”) announced a radical change in cleanup at Hanford’s 324 Building. The 324 Building is the same building where, earlier this year, workers encountered a startling radioactive surprise—a large amount of highly contaminated soil underneath the building, in an area outside the expected zone. This discovery led to a pause in all structural stabilization efforts at the building while soil sampling and analysis explored the extent of contamination. The presence of deadly levels of radiation very close to the Columbia River set off alarm bells, even though the tone of Energy’s announcement was muted.


Stepping Back: The 324-Building, Radioactive Testing, and the Resulting Contamination

Hanford’s 324 Building, the last remaining undemolished, highly radioactive structure in Hanford’s 300 Area, is located only 1,000 feet from the Columbia River and just north of Richland, Washington. Energy used Hanford’s 300 Area to fabricate uranium fuel for Hanford’s reactors, which produced roughly two-thirds of the plutonium for the U.S.’ nuclear weapons arsenal. The area was also used for research, and at least one experiment had disastrous results. 

Photo: Hanford Site Map, Courtesy of Dept. of Energy
Photo: Hanford Site Map, Courtesy of Dept. of Energy

In October 1986, Energy was creating highly concentrated radiation sources by glassifying material from irradiated nuclear fuel and concentrated cesium taken from Hanford’s N Reactor and the Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility. The project, in an enclosed area of the 324 Building called a “hot cell”, sought to make vitrified (glass) logs for a test of a German waste repository. In the process of vitrifying the highly radioactive material, Energy caused a leak of approximately 1.3 million curies (a huge amount!) of concentrated cesium, strontium, and other contaminants that escaped through the damaged floor of the hot cell into the soil beneath the floor. The outcome of the experiment? The dozens of glass logs produced never made it to Germany, and they still remain at Hanford with no clear disposal path. The soil contamination remained for two decades before Energy came to understand the severity of the problem it had created.

Inside Hanford’s B-Reactor, a large wall of metal instruments under lights,

In 2010, as workers prepared the building for demolition, they discovered that soil impacted by the spill remained tremendously radioactive. Sampling under the hot cell revealed hotspots in the soil that would generate a dose of radiation 8,900 R/hr and above. Such high radiation sparked concern because it is lethally dangerous, and the hot cell sits 42 feet above groundwater destined for the Columbia River—only 1,000 feet from the 324 Building. 

In 2010, Energy’s mission at the 324 Building turned from demolition to excavation. Energy devised a new plan to cut away the concrete in the hot cell with remotely-controlled equipment and then use a remote arm to excavate the contaminated soil. This excavation required horizontal building supports to be injected into the soil beneath the building to stabilize the structure. Careful planning and slow progress lasted over a decade before recent events put a stop to the work.

In order to support the structure further during soil excavation, additional supports were needed outside of the footprint of the building. Work for the plan led to the recent discovery when workers encountered contaminated soil where it shouldn’t have been, beyond the area close to the hot cell. Energy immediately halted work to test the soil.


A Disturbing New Reality

The sampling results reveal a disturbing new reality—a new soil hotspot capable of generating a radiation dose of 984 R/hr, very close to the Columbia River. Yet, the location of the new soil contamination doesn’t make sense based on previous knowledge and expectations. A surprise of this magnitude emerging over a decade after Energy first acknowledged the highly radioactive soil contamination beneath the 324 Building causes us to question whether the contamination is “stable,” as Energy claims.

Due to radioactivity levels higher than expected, Energy’s “is considering a resequencing of the work to deactivate the 324 Building, demolish it to slab on grade, construct a containment superstructure over the slab on grade and then remediate the contaminated soils.”


Why This Is Alarming

Energy’s stance at the 324-Building and this more recent announcement is alarming for several reasons. 

A orange and white striped standing sign that reads "restricted access" on a dirt road
Insert Photo: David Moskowitz, Hanford

First, Energy admits that the extremely radioactive contamination is present in a much broader area than originally thought. Energy has not released detailed analysis of why it believes contamination was found in the new areas, however it has released readings from above and below the 984 R/hr hotspot. These data reveal readings much different than the hotspot itself. This leads Columbia Riverkeeper to be deeply skeptical of Energy’s claim that the contamination will remain “stable” for the foreseeable future. 

The new cleanup plan could take many years to complete. Energy’s new plan for demolition, expanding a slab over soil to prevent migration of pollution, and even building a “superstructure” over the entire area demonstrate that the cleanup will be complicated and delayed far beyond Energy’s previous 2025 deadline. If pollution remains in soil for a prolonged period of time, what new risks will emerge that drive the contamination towards groundwater?

Additionally, the alarming new information at the 324 Building is a prime example of why river corridor clean up remains far from complete. The 324 Building sits less than 300 yards from the Columbia River and above groundwater. Surprise hotspots, radiation at risk of spreading in the environment, and unknown radioactivity pose a long-term threat to the River and people in nearby Richland. 


Looking ahead

These are the key issues we will be pressing when it comes to the 324 Building.

Panoramic view of Hanford Nuclear Reservation. There is a blue sky with whispy clouds in the distance. There are blue-ish brown low mountains in the background and in the foreground the iconic green sage brush shrubs fill the photo
Photo: David Moskowitz, Hanford
  1. Energy must meaningfully consult with Tribes and the public before finalizing new plans for addressing highly radioactive contamination at the 324 Building. Due to the extremely high radiation levels, very close proximity to groundwater and the Columbia River, and location near Richland, plans for the 324 Building demands public involvement and scrutiny.
  2. Energy must expand monitoring and testing to understand the extent of contamination. Energy should provide detailed analysis to support its claim that pollution is “stable.”
  3. Energy must treat highly contaminated soils appropriately, and avoid inappropriately disposing of contaminated material at Hanford’s landfill, the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility (ERDF). Because contaminated material from the 324 Building is likely to be high-level waste, and may contain transuranic or other waste unsuitable for disposal at ERDF, Energy must revise its plans for disposing of waste generated from cleanup at the 324 Building.
  4. Congress must continue to invest in Hanford cleanup. Recent proposals to increase Hanford’s cleanup budget will help address many of Hanford’s problems, but funding still falls short of levels necessary to tackle emerging challenges like the 324 Building. As Energy develops plans for cleanup, Congress must ensure that it provides the resources necessary to protect the Columbia River
Stay tuned for more to come on this issue. We will alert you when public comment opportunities emerge for cleanup at the 324 Building.