RICHLAND, Wash. The Department of Energy and its contractors celebrated on Tuesday what they say is a major milestone in the cleanup of the nation s most contaminated nuclear site.

A truck dumped the 15 millionth ton of contaminated debris at Hanford s Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility (ERDF).

A small crowd of workers applauded and 50 dump trucks sounded their air horns as the load was dumped in the sprawling landfill.

ERDF began operations in 1996. Since then, DOE contractors have demolished 390 facilities along the Columbia River corridor. Much of the low-level radioactive debris from those old buildings and the soil beneath them was sent to ERDF. The 107-acre disposal trench has a protective liner on the bottom and will be sealed up with the same on top as it fills up.

Department of Energy (DOE) managers say it was a priority to get rid of the contaminated structures built on the banks of the Columbia River to assure people downstream that the threat will be gone.

It provides a safe, compliant location to dispose of a variety of waste, and demonstrates the tremendous quantity of cleanup we ve accomplished over 24 years of Hanford cleanup, said DOE Richland Operations Manager Matt McCormick.

It was a shiny moment in a dim year for other segments of the cleanup, including news of leaks in some of the 177 underground nuclear waste storage tanks at Hanford and the continually delayed and over-budget waste treatment plant that will someday turn the waste into stable glass blocks.

Those operations are taking heat from political leaders and watchdog groups for concealing problems and lack of progress. There are concerns more tanks will leak their highly radioactive waste into the soil and eventually the ground water and the Columbia River.

But today was a day to celebrate. Contractors high-fived, managers thanked workers and dump truck drivers sounded off. Millions of tons of radioactive debris along with hazardous materials like mercury, asbestos, beryllium and chromium are no longer lining the banks of the Columbia River.

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