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 an undetermined 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.