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YAKIMA, Wash. — The U.S. Department of Energy plans to resume shipping radioactive waste from the Hanford nuclear reservation to a repository in New Mexico in early March, four years earlier than originally planned.
The Energy Department halted waste shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad in September 2008. They were not expected to resume until 2014, but federal stimulus money is enabling workers to
expand waste packaging operations again at the south-central Washington site, Energy Department spokesman Geoff Tyree said Friday.
“So thanks to the Recovery Act money, we’re resuming shipments of waste out of state years earlier than originally planned,” he said.
The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of its top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.
At 586 square miles, cleanup operations vary at Hanford, from tearing down buildings and digging up radioactive waste to treating tainted groundwater and preserving historic sites.
At the time waste shipments to New Mexico were halted, available money was being directed toward cleaning up contaminated areas along the Columbia River, which borders the Hanford site and is the Pacific Northwest’s largest waterway.
Operations to clean up Hanford’s central plateau, away from the river, were slowed as a result. That includes digging up transuranic waste — typically debris such as clothing, equipment and pipes left over from nuclear weapons production — that has been contaminated both with plutonium and hazardous chemicals.
Waste drums that are retrieved from underground trenches must be free of items banned by the New Mexico repository, known as WIPP, to be shipped, such as liquids and pressurized containers.
Cleanup contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. has hired
60 more employees to help dig up waste and determine if it’s suitable for shipment, Tyree said. The company is adding an additional shift Monday and plans to expand the number of waste repackaging lines from one to four.
Roughly $2 billion is spent annually on cleanup operations at Hanford. Last year, Congress appropriated an additional $2 billion in stimulus dollars to the site, with
$30 million to be dedicated to the WIPP waste shipment operations.
WIPP also received $172 million in stimulus money to accelerate shipments and make infrastructure improvements to the repository.