Hanford Nuke Site Tunnel Collapses

Tuesday, May 9, 2017 @ 06:05 PM gHale

A view of the 20-foot-long portion of a tunnel that collapsed at the Hanford nuclear site.

Workers at Hanford Nuclear Reservation evacuated Tuesday after part of a tunnel that stores rail cars filled with radioactive waste, collapsed.

Officials detected no radiation release, and no workers were in the tunnel when it caved in, said Randy Bradbury, a spokesman for the Washington state Department of Ecology. Around 11 a.m. pacific time, a robot was sampling contamination in the air and on the ground and did not find evidence of a release of contamination.

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Hanford contractors working nearby evacuated from the area immediately while those farther away on the 586-square-mile site were told to remain indoors, but by 3 p.m. all nonessential personnel were told to go home, said officials at the U.S. Department of Energy.

The complex, about half the size of Rhode Island and located along the Columbia River, has more than 9,000 employees.

Early in the morning, a manager sent a message to all personnel telling them to “secure ventilation in your building” and “refrain from eating or drinking.” Those restrictions lifted around noon but most workers were told to continue to shelter in place.

The tunnel, which is hundreds of feet long and covered with about 8 feet of soil, contains highly contaminated materials such as trains that transported nuclear fuel rods. It connects to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, known at the site as PUREX.

The 20-foot-by-20-foot collapse occurred at one of two rail tunnels under the PUREX site, Bradbury said. In the past, rail cars full of radioactive waste ended up driven into the tunnels and buried.

This incident caused the soil above the tunnel to sink 2 to 4 feet, according the Energy Department.

The closed PUREX plant was part of the nation’s nuclear weapons production complex.

Hanford — about 20 miles northwest of Richland, 150 miles southeast of Seattle and less than 50 miles from the Oregon border — was built during World War II and processed the plutonium for most of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. For decades afterward, workers made plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Hanford’s emergency operations center activated at 8:26 a.m., and long-time workers think it may be the first time it was opened for a possible radioactive release. Oregon’s Department of Energy also activated its own emergency operations center.

Today the Hanford site contains 56 million gallons of radioactive waste and is the largest depository of radioactive waste from the Defense Department. Contractors are in the midst of a decades-long process of cleanup.

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