RICHLAND, Wash. -- A Richland company has been awarded a $19 million contract to come up with a plan to clean up a highly radioactive spill that went undetected at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation for 24 years.

Workers preparing an old laboratory in the Hanford 300 Area for demolition discovered the spill under a research structure called a hot cell. The mixture of radioactive cesium and strontium under the so-called 324 Building is described as so dangerous anyone exposed directly to it would be dead in two minutes.

Probes inserted under the building got temperature readings of 140 degrees (F) from the contaminated soil. That discovery was made in 2010, 24 years after an accident was reported in the hot cell. It was believed all the material was contained, but it apparently seeped through a crack and into the soil beneath the building.

The 300 Area and the 324 building are less than a mile away from public areas and very near the Columbia River.

Tests show the radiation has not seeped deep enough to reach groundwater and shouldn t reach it if it is cleaned up in the near future.

Department of Energy officials say the 324 building is a protective shield providing a safe barrier between the radioactive soil and the workers.

Areva Federal Services of Richland will use the $19 million contract to build a life sized model of the hot cell and the robotics it will use to dig out the plume. It s too dangerous for people, even in protective suits, to get close. There are no estimates available yet on how much the actual clean up will cost.

Once it is cleaned up, workers can add the 324 building to the list of dozens of contaminated buildings they have already safely demolished.

Related links:

324 Building fact sheet (PDF)

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