History of nuclear waste site in Washington state

Tammy Harvey
May 10, 2017

A tunnel was damaged on Tuesday at a plutonium handling facility at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, leading authorities to evacuate some workers at the site and instruct others to take cover, federal officials said.

Hundreds of workers at the Hanford nuclear waste site in the U.S. state of Washington have been ordered to "take cover" after a tunnel, containing radioactive material and contaminated trains, partially collapsed. Back then, there were even fewer regulations and plans for disposing of nuclear fuel than there are now, so once it was processed, the still highly-radioactive materials were stored in above-ground tunnels that were covered with earth, where they would be relatively safe, the Hanford Site worker told us.

Hanford Site employees north of the Wye Barrier and outside the 200 East area are being evacuated and sent home now, but employees at 200 East remain sheltered in place.

Beginning in 1943 and lasting for more than 40 years, Hanford made plutonium for nuclear weapons, including for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. The Energy Department said soil collapsed 50cm to 1.2m over a 37sqm area.

"The Hanford Fire Department is on scene", the Department of Energy reports. Its last reactor closed down in 1987 but millions of liters of leftover waste are contained in tanks at the site.

Two years later, the U.S. Department of Energy, the EPA, and Washington state agreed to work together to clean up the heavily contaminated complex.

On Tuesday morning, about six Hanford employees, on routine rounds, noticed that an area of soil over one of the tunnels had sunk, Destry Henderson, an Energy Department spokesman, said.

According to the official release, the alert was announced following the collapse close to the Plutonium and Uranium-Handling Plant at 8:26 local time.

The accident occurred at a facility known as PUREX, located in the middle of the sprawling Hanford site, which is half the size of Rhode Island, Bradbury said. The building has been vacant for almost twenty years but remains highly contaminated, according to the Department of Energy. The United States is in the process of dismantling and decommissioning the site. Workers are also monitoring the air in the vicinity to detect contamination. That statement of course, contradicts what the Hanford media contact told us and indicates that the collapse is in fact into the tunnel.

The stuff inside the tunnel is nasty, they said, but for now, the nuclear genie remains in its bottle. Originally, the site was used to produce plutonium for defense and commercial reactors, but those operations ended in 1980.

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