Tunnel collapse renews safety concerns about nuclear sites

Thousands of workers at a nuclear site in the U.S. state of Washington were ordered to take cover Tuesday after a storage tunnel filled with contaminated material partially collapsed, but there was no indication of a radioactive leak.

"Between 1960 and 1965, eight rail cars were pushed inside one tunnel, full of radioactive waste".

In April'16 the Hanford Nuclear Reservation sent the alarm bells ringing as a report revealed that of the 28 double-shelled tanks used for storage of radioactive materials, AY-102 was leaking toxic-sludge into the soil.

Gerry Pollet, a Washington state legislator and longtime Hanford critic, said the collapse of a waste storage tunnel at Hanford had been feared for years.

The incident prompted an emergency declaration, some workers on the site were.

Henderson said the alert was raised early Tuesday after employees at the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility (PUREX), a former chemical processing plant located at the center of the site, noticed during a routine inspection that soil had sunk over one of two tunnels in the area.

The nuclear site, which is twice the size of Singapore, was used to produce plutonium for the bomb that brought an end to World War II. This includes 56 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks, some of which have leaked. That work is expected to take until 2060 and cost an additional $100 billion over the $19 billion already spent. The report concluded if the tunnels collapsed, from an quake or another natural cause, it could pose a risk to workers because of the highly contaminated railcars stored inside.

Railcars filled with radioactive waste are buried in the wood and concrete tunnels, which are covered by about 8feet of soil.

"This alarming emergency compels us to take immediate action - to hold the federal government accountable to its obligation to clean up the largest nuclear waste site in the country", said Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon. That order will remain in effect until Wednesday evening for non-essential overnight worker too.

Plutonium production at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation stopped in 1980 and cleaning up radioactive materials has been the Energy Department's top priority for years. Non-essential workers who live north of the site's Wye Barricade entrance were asked to stay home Wednesday. "This week's incident is a reminder that the men and women who work for the Department of Energy do incredible work, but that work does not come without risk".

The cause of Tuesday's collapse was not immediately known.

It has been sealed since the mid-1990s, according to the department of energy.

"No action is required for residents of Benton and Franklin counties", the department said.

A U.S. Department of Energy news release says Perry was told the agency will monitor the situation. "After extensive testing the site remains confident at this point that there has been no indication of worker exposure or an airborne radiological release".

The committee oversees the department's management of the cleanup efforts. Hanford made the plutonium for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and much of the plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

  • Archie Newman