Emergency declared at Hanford nuclear site in Washington state

Marco Green
May 22, 2017

The U.S. Department of Energy says the incident caused the soil above the tunnel to sink between 2 and 4 feet (half to 1.2 meters).

Workers in the immediate area have been evacuated. Each tunnel is hundreds of feet long, the Hanford Site says, made of wood and concrete and covered with about 8 feet of soil.

The discovery prompted an emergency alert at the site, and as of noon, there was still no indication of any radioactive release.

Federal officials said there was no sign that any radioactive material had leaked after crews discovered that a 20-foot (six-meter) section of a tunnel containing rail cars filled with contaminated equipment had caved in.

"This hasn't happened before", Department of Energy spokesman Mark Heeter told CNN.

"They are looking at options that would provide a barrier between the contaminated equipment in the tunnel and the outside air that would not cause the hole in the tunnel's roof to widen", a statement from the emergency center reads. In addition, no workers were injured or exposed to radiation.

"All employees have been accounted for, there were no injuries and there is no indication of a spread of radiological contamination", said Destry Henderson, a spokesman for the Hanford Emergency Center.

"We'll have to get to the bottom of that", he said. "They will investigate once it is safe for people to go in and see".

However, tests are still continuing, with radiation levels constantly being monitored through the help of robotic equipment. These tunnels are decades old.

Heeter said that the greatest threat presented by plutonium is airborne contamination. The federal government-operated facility was established in the 1940s.

"My thoughts are with the first responders who are working to assess the situation on the ground", she said. The shelter in place order was lifted after a few hours after no contamination had been detected. "It is a very small patch of land in a very large swath of land". The tunnel is understood to have enough storage space for 48 rail cars.

Workers have begun preparations to fill the hole created by the cave-in with clean soil in order to stabilize the tunnel.

Henderson said all non-essential employees north of the site's Wye Barricade and outside the 200 East Area were asked to stay home Wednesday. Thousands of workers moved into the site where plutonium was produced for use in atomic bombs.

The Hanford nuclear site was used to produce plutonium for the bomb that brought an end to World War II. The site - with nine nuclear reactors and associated processing facilities - is now managed by the DOE's Richland Operations Office, which is responsible for the cleanup of all remaining waste streams at the site.

The Hanford Site, about 150 miles southeast of Seattle, is a former nuclear production complex and home to a long-running, challenging and sometimes troubled cleanup operation.

Responding agencies include the U.S. Department of Energy; Richland, West Richland, and Kennewick city fire and police; Benton, Franklin, and Grant County fire and police officials; Washington state patrol; and OR and Washington state officials.

The alert was later expanded to a site area emergency.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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