Tunnel with nuclear waste collapses in Washington state

Erika Turner
May 19, 2017

Hundreds of workers were in "take cover" position after a tunnel in a plutonium uranium extraction (PUREX) plant collapsed at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation early Tuesday morning.

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.

Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department official, told the Washington Post that rail cars at Hanford carry spent fuel from the reactor area along the Columbia River to the site's reprocessing facility, where plutonium and uranium are then extracted.

Randy Bradbury, a spokesman for the Washington state Department of Ecology, said there apparently has been no release of radiation and no workers were injured.

On Tuesday, Cantwell issued a statement praising first responders and saying that she was monitoring reports.

The Hanford site sprawls over 586 square miles in south-central Washington State, where it was used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons from World War II until the 1980s. The concern was that if the roof of the tunnel collapsed it could release long-trapped contaminated material into the air.

"There is no indication of a release of contamination at this point", a statement by the U.S. Department of Energy said.

Eight rail cars are in the tunnel that collapsed, but it feeds into a longer tunnel that contains 28 loaded rail cars. There are bad things at Hanford that could blow up, that could contaminate the communities. "All staff are accounted for and right now we have the Hanford Fire Department on standby".

"In 2015, a preliminary report identified the tunnels and the PUREX facility as a major risk area on the Hanford site". A large robotic arm called the Mobile Arm Retrieval System (MARS) has been used in the past to scoop hundreds of gallons of radioactive waste from Hanford's underground storage tanks.

The Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility is seen at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington. "The subsidence of soil was discovered during a routine surveillance of the area by workers".

Ground was broken at Hanford in 2002 for a $17 billion vitrification plant - one of the federal government's most expensive construction projects - to separate much of the waste into high-level and low-level radioactive material.

The tunnels are covered by about 8 feet of soil, the Energy Department said.

The site, which is about the size of Rhode Island, actually contains five processing plants.

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.

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