What is the PUREX facility? - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

What is the PUREX facility?

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RICHLAND, WA - We wanted to look into why today's tunnel breach at the Hanford site caused so much concern. 

Reporter Veronica Padilla learned it was because it happened near the PUREX building. She researched what work was done at PUREX when it was operational.

PUREX was the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility...and when it was fully operational, it was the largest chemical processing facility at Hanford. The building has been vacant for nearly 20 years but is still highly contaminated. That also includes several dozens of radioactive rail cars that are still underground in a tunnel that's near where today's collapse happened.

A viewer sent a few photos of the collapse of the tunnel while it was under construction in the 1950s, but this was before the plant started running.

The PUREX facility is more than 1,000 feet long and began operations in 1956. For more than 20 years, workers purified fuel for nuclear reactors or weapons by separating uranium and plutonium from nuclear fuel irradiated in Hanford's reactors.

PUREX accounted for 80 percent of the 53 tons of plutonium produced at Hanford. It took more than ten years to fully deactivate PUREX.

According to the Department of Energy, the complete removal of plutonium from PUREX was finally completed in June of 1996. The building was fully shut down a year later.