Tunnel collapses at Hanford nuclear waste site

An emergency has been declared at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington (about 200 miles southeast of Seattle) after a tunnel collapsed atop rail cars containing radioactive waste. The tunnels are hundreds of feet long, with about 8 feet (2.4 meters) of soil covering them, the agency said.

Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department official, told the Washington Post that rail cars at Hanford carry spent fuel from the reactor area along the Columbia River to the site's reprocessing facility, where plutonium and uranium are then extracted.

No workers were in the tunnel at the time, but some employees close to the collapse were evacuated and others in the area were told to remain indoors and "take cover" as a precautionary measure, according to NBC News.

CNN wrote of how, "Hours after authorities scrambled to respond, US Department of Energy authorities determined there is no initial evidence that workers have been exposed to radiation or that there has been an 'airborne radiological release'".

The U.S. Department of Energy, Richland, West Richland, and other local fire and police officials as well as Washington state patrol and OR and Washington state officials all responded to the scene, according to KING5.

The evacuation did not affect the nearby nuclear power plant operated by Energy Northwest, company spokesman John Dobken said.

The mishap occurred atop one of two rail tunnels under a plant located in the middle of the Hanford site.

The tunnel at the Hanford plant near Richland was full of contaminated particles, including radioactive trains that transport fuel rods, KING5 reported. They are now working to fix the hole in the roof of the tunnel and are looking to install a barrier to contain the radioactive waste. Material from the Hanford Site was used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, during the final days of World War II. Cleanup crews in HAZMAT suits brought in load after load of sealant; Weeks of work necessary to safeguard event the short trip to the tunnels.

Workers demolish a decommissioned nuclear reactor during the cleanup operations at the nuclear site in Hanford, Wash., in 2011.

The site produced plutonium for America's defense program for more than 40 years.

Henderson added that all non-essential employees that work north of the Wye-Barricade have been asked to stay home while crews work to fix the tunnel.

During his recent confirmation hearing, Energy Secretary Rick Perry was asked by Washington Senator Maria Cantwell about the Hanford site.

No workers were inside the tunnel when soil collapsed 2 to 4 feet (half to 1.2 meters) over a 400 sq. foot (37.1 sq. meter) area. The Department of Energy says it's the most challenging of the government's nuclear cleanup projects, with millions of tons and hundreds of billions of gallons of nuclear waste.

According to the DOE, the collapse may have been caused by road crews doing construction above the tunnel location.

  • Zachary Reyes