EnergySolutions Inc. and two partners this week landed a $7.1 billion federal contract to maintain the infamous Hanford Site's 177 storage tanks that are filled with 53 million gallons of residual radioactive materials and chemicals, the company said Thursday.

The roughly 586-square-mile Hanford Site, part of the Manhattan Project, is along the Columbia River in Washington. The U.S. government-owned site was home to the world's first full-scale plutonium production reactor and expanded to its height of production in the 1960s and 1970s. The area is now considered one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the U.S.

The tanks to be maintained by EnergySolutions and its partners are huge, aging underground structures spread out among 18 "farms." The contract is scheduled to go into effect in July and extend for at least the next five years, with the possibility of a five-year extension.

EnergySolutions, along with Washington's URS Corp. and a subsidiary of France's Areva Group, will take full control of maintaining the tanks by October, said EnergySolutions spokesman John Ward. The partners, with EnergySolutions representing 40 percent, are collectively known as Washington River Protection Solutions.

"It's a significant contract award," he said. "It indicates EnergySolutions is taking its place as a major nuclear services provider."

The contract comes as EnergySolutions is meeting with an outpouring of opposition in Utah, regionally and from Congress for its proposal to import low-level radioactive waste from old nuclear reactors in Italy. EnergySolutions also has been talking this month to British officials about the possibilities of someday exporting radioactive waste from the United Kingdom for storage at the company's disposal site in Clive, Utah.

The company's proposal to import up to 1,600 tons of Italian radioactive waste to Utah is pending in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The eight-state Northwest Interstate Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management recently informed the commission of its unanimous disapproval of the plan.

For the Hanford contract, EnergySolutions and its partners beat out the incumbent CH2M Hill and others who responded to a request for proposals.

Ward said the goal over the next 20-30 years is to remove the materials from the tanks and use an on-site facility, yet to be built, to treat the toxic waste. Until then, EnergySolutions and its partners will keep an eye on the tanks, watching for and working to prevent leaks.

Cleaning up the site is one of the Department of Energy's "highest priorities," Ward said. So far, the company has no plans to transport any waste from the site to Utah.

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