Hundreds of workers at the Department of Energy’s Hanford nuclear site in Washington state had to “take cover” Tuesday morning after the collapse of 20-foot-long portion of a tunnel used to store contaminated radioactive materials.
The Energy Department said it activated its emergency operations protocol after reports of a “cave-in” at the 200 East Area in Hanford, a sprawling complex about 200 miles from Seattle where the government has been working to clean up radioactive materials left over from the country’s nuclear weapons program.
The agency said in a statement that the 20-foot section is part of a tunnel that is hundreds of feet long and is “used to store contaminated materials.” The tunnel is one of two that run into the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, also known as PUREX. The section that collapsed was “in an area where the two tunnels join together,” the department said.
The PUREX facility, once used to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel, has been idle for years but remains “highly contaminated,” the agency said.
Energy Department officials said there was “no indication of a release of contamination at this point” but that crews were still testing the area. Responders also were using a robot to take video and survey the damage. The department said that Energy Secretary Rick Perry had been briefed, adding that “everyone has been accounted for and there is no initial indication of any worker exposure or an airborne radiological release.”
But Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said there is still cause for concern. “It appears that this is a potentially serious event,” he said. “Collapse of the earth covering the tunnels could lead to a considerable radiological release.”
An August 2015 report by Vanderbilt University’s civil and environmental engineering department said the PUREX facility and the two tunnels had “the potential for significant on-site consequences” and that “various pieces of dangerous debris and equipment containing or contaminated with dangerous/mixed waste” had been placed inside the tunnels.
Cleaning up radioactive materials at the Hanford site, which is a federal facility, has been one of the Energy Department’s priorities for years. Reactors at Hanford produced plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Plutonium production there ended in 1980, and the cleanup program began in 1989.
Former Energy Department official Robert Alvarez said that remotely controlled rail cars once carried spent fuel from a reactor to the PUREX chemical processing facility, which then extracted dangerous plutonium. He said the plant lies near the middle of the sprawling 580-square mile Hanford site and was “a very high-hazard operation.”
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