Tunnel collapse at Hanford Nuclear site, emergency declared

The Department of Energy has declared an emergency at a nuclear-contaminated site in Washington state, after soil caved in over a portion of a tunnel containing rail cars contaminated with nuclear waste.

Federal officials at midday said there was no sign so far that any radioactive material had leaked following the collapse of part of the tunnel, which contained rail cars filled with nuclear waste.

The mound of dirt that covers railroad tunnels to the Hanford site's PUREX facility.

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.

Located to the east of the PUREX facility, the tunnels were used since the 1950s to store contaminated equipment.

The Hanford emergency hotline representative also said that no one appears to be hurt at this time, and that approximately fewer than 10 people are now in the PUREX facility.

While "the tunnels do contain contaminated materials", she told Business Insider, "there's no evidence of any injuries, and all employees have been accounted for".

Employees at the sprawling Hanford Site plant were sent an early morning alert by management telling them to "secure ventilation" and refrain from "eating or drinking".

During routine surveillance, the agency said it discovered a 20-foot wide hole in the roof of one of the tunnels.

"Federal, state and local officials are coordinating closely on the response, and the state Department of Ecology is in close communication with the U.S. Department of Energy Richland Office".

A 20-by-20-foot area of soil above the tunnels "subsided", the Department of Energy said Tuesday morning, significantly upgrading the scale of the breach from its previous estimate. Oregon's Department of Energy, which has responsibility for radiological safety, also activated an emergency operations center.

Crews doing road work near the plant may have caused vibrations that triggered the collapse, a source told KING5.

Carpenter said he expects total cleanup costs could reach $300 billion to $500 billion. The incident caused the soil above the tunnel to sink between 2 and 4 feet.

A former Energy Department official Bob Alvarez said that the rail cars carry spent fuel from a reactor area long the river to the chemical processing facility, which then extracts unsafe plutonium and uranium.

Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons and now is engaged in cleaning up the resulting waste. It even produced the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, USA Today noted.

  • Joanne Flowers