Tunnel with nuclear waste collapses in Washington state

Randall Padilla
May 10, 2017

Federal officials said there was no sign that any radioactive material had leaked after crews discovered that a six-metre section of a tunnel - containing rail cars filled with nuclear waste - had caved in.

Personnel at the site have been evacuated, the department says, and workers nearby have been sent indoors "as a precaution", as responders move closer for investigation.

Officials say a collapsed patch of ground above the tunnel was larger than first believed. "Our understanding is that the site went into immediate lock down, in which workers were told to seek shelter, and all access to the area has been closed".

They were also instructed to "take cover" at the site located in Hanford, south-central Washington. "There is no indication of a release of contamination at this point".

Former Energy Department official Robert Alvarez said the rail cars carry spent fuel from a reactor area along the river to the chemical processing facility.

In the area immediately around the soil collapse, crews have deployed a TALON remote-operated robotic surveillance device that is capable of "radiological and industrial hygiene monitoring as well as capturing video footage".

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the safety of Hanford's 9,000 employees is the top priority.

The anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear said the incident helped show "radioactive waste management is out of control".

The 500-square mile Hanford reservation was established by the Manhattan Project during World War II to make plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. A spokesperson said there was no evidence any radioactive materials had been released and all workers in the area were accounted for.

The PUREX plant has been vacant for almost 20 years, according to the Hanford Site website, but remains "highly contaminated" after housing operations to chemically process irradiated fuel rods to recover the plutonium contained within them.

Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons and is now the largest USA depository of radioactive defense waste, with 56M gallons of waste, most of it in 177 underground tanks. Energy Department Secretary Rick Perry has been briefed on the incident.

The Energy Department says no one was injured in the collapse and no radiation has been released.

The last reactor shut down in 1987, shortly before the mammoth cleanup effort began.

The Hanford site was built during World War II and made plutonium for most of the USA nuclear arsenal, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of the war.

Other reports by AllAboutTopnews

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