Tunnel collapse latest safety issue at nuclear site

A section of a tunnel at a plutonium-handling facility at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state collapsed, on Tuesday.

Nowhere in the United States is there more nuclear waste and radioactive contamination than at Hanford, which has been the focus of a massive, complex cleanup effort by the U.S. Department of Energy since 1989.

In a Facebook Live session, Hanford spokesman Destry Henderson explained that the emergency was triggered Tuesday morning when workers noticed the roof over a tunnel used to store contaminated equipment had sunk. Anna King of the Northwest News Network, a public radio station collaboration, reports that approximately 3,000 other workers in the area were originally taking cover indoors.

All employees were accounted for and no injuries had been reported. It said it had activated an emergency operation at the plant at 8:26 am, shortly after an alert was declared.

The PUREX facility - which includes the equipment in the two tunnels - was already slated to be decontaminated, demolished and buried.

The budget for Hanford alone is about $2.3 billion in the current fiscal year, about $1.5 billion of that going to the management and treatment of approximately 56 million gallons of radioactive liquid waste now stored in underground storage tanks. The tunnel's contents, including trains, were contaminated with nuclear waste.

No one was hurt when the tunnel caved in at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation site, causing soil to sink about four metres across a 400 sq ft area.

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"This is a serious situation, and ensuring the safety of the workers and the community is the top priority". A site area emergency is limited to the boundaries of the Hanford site but could affect staff beyond the immediate facility. Officials detected no release of radiation and said no workers were injured.

The Hanford site was built during World War II and made plutonium for most of the US nuclear arsenal, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of the war.

Over the course of its operating lifetime, the facility produced almost 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste that is now stored in 177 underground tanks.

No spent nuclear fuel is stored in the tunnel, and no further evacuations have been ordered for workers, nor have any warnings for civilians around the site been issued, she said.

Hanford made plutonium for nuclear weapons for years and is in the midst of a multidecade, multibillion-dollar cleanup of the leftover waste. The alert was triggered by the discovery of a "small sunken area of soil" that covers a tunnel.

The site stopped producing plutonium in the late 1980s, and soon after, the U.S. Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, and Washington state reached a landmark agreement to clean up the site. The site produced plutonium for the world's first atomic explosion and for one of the two atomic bombs that was dropped on Japan.

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