Tunnel with nuclear waste collapses in Washington state

10 May, 2017, 03:53 | Author: Elaine Woods

Earlier this morning, the Hanford Site-which is where the United States produced most of its plutonium for nuclear weapons, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki-declared an emergency.

"The subsidence of soil was discovered during a routine surveillance of the area by workers", it said. It is now being dismantled and cleaned up by the Energy Department. The emergency seems to have started near the PUREX facility, used for extracting plutonium from spent fuel rods.

No workers were inside the tunnel when it collapsed, causing soil on the surface above to sink two to four feet over a 400 square foot area, officials said. A 20-foot-long section appears to have collapsed. Employees working north of the Wye Barricade and outside of the 200 East Area are now being released from work early as a precaution.

The building has been vacant for almost twenty years, but it remains highly contaminated. Workers at the nuclear site were ordered to take cover after an incident on May 9, 2017. "The facility does have radiological contamination right now but there is no indication of a radiological release", Henderson said.

Responders are on the scene and are reporting the soil has subsided in an area approximately 20 feet by 20 feet over one of the tunnels next to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, also known as PUREX.

Officials evacuated some personnel close to the incident immediately while ordering others to shelter in place. They rest on reinforced concrete footings.

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If there should be a release of contamination that goes beyond the boundaries of the Hanford site, it would mean that produce would not be allowed in or out of the affected area, Miller said. The waste produced at the site has been the subject of a major cleanup project since 1989, and now 11,000 employees are involved in the operation. The tunnel in question may itself contain items that were used when the plant was operating and which remain contaminated.

Mostly decommissioned, Hanford has been a subject of controversy and conflict between state and local authorities, including a lawsuit over worker safety and ongoing cleanup delays.

The budget for Hanford alone is about US$2.3b in the current fiscal year, about US$1.5b of that going to the management and treatment of approximately 211m litres of radioactive liquid waste now stored in underground storage tanks.

According to CBS News, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was created during World War II to secretly build the atomic bomb. It is located about 321km southeast of Seattle and is half the size of Rhode Island. "Five huge plants in the center of the Hanford Site processed 110,000 tons of fuel from the reactors, discharging an estimated 450 billion gallons of liquids to soil disposal sites and 53 million gallons of radioactive waste to 177 large underground tanks".

In 2016, in an advisory letter to Department of Energy officials, the Hanford Advisory Board asked officials to "expeditiously investigate whether the PUREX tunnels pose a high risk and, if so, to then negotiate milestones to begin planning for their remediation". Lawyers for the Energy Department say there has been no evidence provided showing workers have been harmed by emissions.

The latest estimate to finish the overall cleanup of Hanford is more than US$107 billion (NZ$155bn) and the work would take until 2060.

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