History bites the dust

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Demolition cranks up on historic plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Lab

By Garrison Wells

From 1945 to 1978, DP West at Los Alamos National Laboratory was a critical player in the hushed world of nuclear warheads.

This cluster of buildings, described by LANL officials as “wings off of a central hallway,” was where a liquid solution of plutonium from Hanford Plant in Washington State was extracted, processed into metal and shaped into cores for nuclear weapons.

The plutonium was then used in nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site and in the Pacific.

By the end of this year, they will have disappeared, erased in clouds of dust and concrete as surely as if they themselves had been hit by a nuclear warhead.

Work has gotten underway on the cleanup of this clump of 65-year-old buildings. Handling the complex job is ARSEC Environmental LLC of White Rock, which won a $2 million contract to demolish the buildings.

Funding for the project comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

It’s historic work, taking the company decades into the past of nuclear history at the lab.

Considering what those buildings housed, cleanup isn’t without complications, said Steve Shirley, program manager for the project with ARSEC.

The buildings are linked together by hallways. So when one is knocked down, they have to be aware of the impact to the others. Here, the domino effect would not be a good thing.

“The … order involves the demolition of six of the historical processing facilities and four connecting structures,” Shirley said. “Each of these structures have differing construction and most have multi-level roofs, many of which have ventilation ductwork,

filter houses and miscellaneous piping attached to the roofs.”

Still, despite the scope of the project, the company estimates there will be minor impact to the community.

For example, ARSEC is using a special machine that sprays a fine mist of water to keep the dust down, Shirley said.

The project is boosting jobs, too. The company has already added employees and plans to tack on more.

For its first contract with the lab, ARSEC and its subcontractors created or retained 16 jobs “including 12 positions that are skilled craft personnel such as laborers, asbestos workers and equipment operators from northern New Mexico,” Shirley said.

Most of them will be retained for this project and the firm “plans on hiring five additional local/regional skilled craft personnel such as equipment operators and laborers.”

After demolition is complete, crews will analyze and remediate the concrete slabs and soils remaining.

The buildings are second-generation laboratory buildings, replacing the buildings used during World War II for the Manhattan Project. LANL plutonium operations were moved to their present location, the lab’s Technical Area 55, in 1978.

DP West buildings “served their purpose during a difficult time in American history,” said LANL recovery act cleanup Director Bruce Schappell in a written statement.

“It’s just as important today to come full circle and finish the cleanup,” he said.