An emergency has been declared at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington (about 200 miles southeast of Seattle) after a tunnel collapsed atop rail cars containing radioactive waste. All on-site workers have been told to “take cover” while the U.S. Department of Energy issues further directives for standard emergency protocol operations.
Hanford, which produced an atomic bomb in WWII, is one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the U.S. The Cold War relic of sorts stopped producing plutonium in 1980 and began cleanup operations in 1989, but these procedures are expected to take several more decades. According to a facility statement issued late Tuesday morning, a 20-foot section of a tunnel caved in next to the site’s PUREX facility (which extracts plutonium).

The collapsed tunnel is primarily used to store hazardous waste (on a temporary basis while the PUREX site awaits decontamination and demolition at some future date), and crews are working to assess whether any contamination has been released. Obviously, there’s concern for nearby water sources, but at this time, no injuries have been reported. Further, no staff members were in the tunnel when it collapsed, and access to the area has been restricted. The Washington Post spoke with former Energy Department official Robert Alvarez, who describes the grave risk at hand: [Alvarez] said that the rail cars carry spent fuel from a reactor area along the river to the chemical processing facility, which then extracts dangerous plutonium and uranium. He said the plant lies near the middle of the sprawling 580-square mile Hanford site and was “a very high hazard operation.”


CBS News notes that the entire Hanford Nuclear Reservation holds a total of 177 underground tanks, which contain a staggering 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. 

The U.S. government invests billions of dollars annually on Hanford cleanup operations.

(Via Washington Post, Hanford.Gov, OregonLive & CBS News)

Thousands of workers were warned to take cover after a tunnel collapsed Tuesday in a shuttered Washington plutonium uranium extraction plant that was previously used in nuclear weapons production.

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A portion of an underground tunnel containing eight rail cars full of radioactive waste collapsed Tuesday at a sprawling storage facility in a remote area of Washington state, forcing an evacuation of some workers at the site that made plutonium for nuclear weapons for decades after World War II.

Officials detected no release of radiation at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and no workers were injured, said Randy Bradbury, a spokesman for the Washington state Department of Ecology.
No workers were inside the tunnel when it collapsed, and other workers who were ordered to shelter-in-place were later sent home early as a precaution, Hanford said. “Workers continue to monitor the area for contamination as a crew prepares to fill the hole with clean soil,” Hanford said in a news release.

… Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons and is now the largest depository of radioactive defense waste that must be cleaned.
It contains about 56 million gallons of radioactive waste, most of it in 177 underground tanks.

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According to the DOE, the collapse may have been caused by road crews doing construction above the tunnel location. The level of concern for significant danger at the site has subsided. 

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… Worker safety has long been a concern at Hanford.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit last fall against the Energy Department and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, contending vapors released from underground nuclear waste tanks posed a serious risk to workers.
Ferguson said that since the early 1980s, hundreds of workers have been exposed to vapors escaping from the tanks and that those breathing the vapors developed nosebleeds, chest and lung pain, headaches, coughing, sore throats, irritated eyes and difficulty breathing.
Lawyers for the Energy Department have said no evidence has been provided showing workers have been harmed by vapors.

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Having the waste transported in underground tunnels provides some protection against accidents. Glad to hear there was no release, if that’s true.