Hanford's "N" reactor being cocooned - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Hanford's "N" reactor being cocooned

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RICHLAND, Wash. --  Overlooking the Columbia River, workers are cleaning up contaminated land in an effort to protect it, and the environment.

The work is part of an effort by Washington Closure Hanford to clean up waste inside the "N" area. The includes removing contaminated pipes in the ground and cocooning of the "N" reactor itself.

"It's a larger reactor, so what we see behind me here is one of the largest cocooning pieces of work that we have at Hanford," says Cameron Hardy of the Department of Energy.

And the process is already ahead of schedule. 109 "N" building, a small part of the "N" reactor is already sealed up and work is being done to complete the rest. Once sealed, the structure will remain closed for 75 years, with monitoring every 5 years.

"There are over 100 waste sites at "N" area that we're actually cleaning up. The waste sites are anything dealing with unplanned releases which are spills to the ground, pipelines, burn pits that actually had construction debris, " explains Mark Buckmaster of Washington Closure Hanford.

Years of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons during the cold war created much of the waste. And the work to clean it up holds risks that are well planned for.

"Not only from a hazardous waste, but from a radiological standpoint and from industrial safety standpoint. So we spend a lot of time analyzing all of these hazards to protect the workers when we go and do it, so we can do it in a safe manner," says Gary Snow of Washington Closure Hanford.

The cleanup of "N" area will be finished by September 2012. Afterwards, two other reactors "K" East and "K" West will be the next and final reactors to be cocooned. But the Department of Energy hasn't set a date for when that will happen.

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