The workhorse of the 200-Area processing facilities used to extract the plutonium from the irradiated fuel rods was the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant, more commonly referred to as PUREX. As with the four other processing facilities called “canyons” at Hanford, PUREX chemically processed irradiated fuel rods to recover the plutonium contained within them. It was the fifth and final processing canyon built at Hanford and was easily the most efficient in that it produced significantly less liquid waste during processing than the other canyons on the Site. PUREX is located in the 200-East Area of the Hanford Site.
The Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant is massive. It is longer than three football fields, stands 64 feet above the ground, and extends another 40 feet below ground. Concrete walls up to six feet thick were used in the plant to shield workers from the radiation of the building. PUREX also contains more than thirty-three miles of piping.
Built in the early 1950’s, the facility went into operation in 1956. From 1956 to 1972, and again from 1983 until 1988, PUREX processed about 75% of the plutonium produced at Hanford. Some scientists believe that more plutonium was processed at PUREX than any other building on the planet, as it processed more than 70,000 tons of uranium fuel rods during its operations.
The building has been vacant for nearly twenty years, but it remains highly contaminated. Its walls are surrounded by razor wire and barbed wire fences. Several rail cars used to transport the irradiated fuel rods from the Hanford nuclear reactors to the processing canyons are temporarily buried inside a tunnel near PUREX as a result of becoming contaminated.
As with the rest of the Hanford structures, PUREX is slated to be decontaminated, demolished, and some of its debris removed. The rail cars buried next to the facility will also be decontaminated, removed, and permanently buried. Although, the option of grouting the rail cars in-place within the tunnel is being evaluated since removal of the cars would entail extreme worker safety hazards and would be more costly than grouting in-place.