By John Stang on SeattlePI.com
Rabbits found the salt, liked it, and licked it. Later, they pooped it, leaving slightly radioactive scat all over the ground.
It was a low-flying poop detector.
That is if the poop was radioactive.
In late September, a helicopter hovered 50 feet above the Hanford nuclear reservation, methodically hunting almost 16 square miles for radioactive poop that critters with a taste for salt spread.
Going about 80 mph, the helicopter used detection equipment attached to its sides to map out each piece with GPS coordinates.
Between the helicopter survey and the GPS coordinates, the radioactive scat can be found and removed in days rather than the months that would have been needed for people search for the poop on the ground, said Dee Millikin, spokeswoman for CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. That company is responsible for much of the environmental cleanup of central Hanford.
Information on the amount of discovered radioactive scat was not available, Millikin said.
The actual cleanup began this week.
An estimated 50 million gallons of liquid wastes from Cold War plutonium-production processes -- laced with radioactive cesium and strontium salts -- were dumped in a 13.7-square-mile area south of central Hanford's 177 underground radioactive waste tanks. That dumping ended more than 40 years ago.
Similar dumping happened at a two-square-mile site in north-central Hanford.
Jackrabbits routinely burrowed into those sites.
They found the salt, liked it, and licked it.
Later, they pooped it, leaving slightly radioactive scat all over the ground.
Since the radioactive scat has been pinpointed, cleanup crews won't have to dig up as much soil to transfer to a huge Hanford landfill where mildly radioactive debris is dumped, covered and protected, Millikin said.
Nevada-based National Security Technologies did the helicopter survey for $300,000 in federal stimulus money sent to Hanford.
Before the helicopter flights, CH2M Hill did tests to ensure the chopper would not stir up and spread contaminated dirt.