Friday, 06 December, 2019

Workers start filling collapsed plutonium plant tunnel in Washington

A hole where an underground tunnel collapsed at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland Wash A hole where an underground tunnel collapsed at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland Wash
Kelley Robertson | 12 May, 2017, 00:40

An emergency has been declared at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state after a portion of a tunnel that that contains rail cars full of nuclear waste collapsed.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a frequent Hanford critic, said the cave-in shows that the temporary solutions the Energy Department has used for decades are starting to fail. "It's the latest in a series of alarms that the safety and health of Hanford workers and our citizens are at risk", Bellon said. It was discovered Tuesday as part of a routine inspection. Non-essential workers who live north of the site's Wye Barricade entrance were asked to stay home Wednesday.

Plutonium production at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation stopped in 1980 and cleaning up radioactive materials has been the Energy Department's top priority for years.

Lawyers for the Energy Department have said no evidence has been provided showing workers have been harmed by vapors.

Officials detected no release of radiation and say there were no workers inside the tunnel.

The tunnel is one of two at the site containing radioactive waste from the time the facility produced plutonium for America's nuclear arsenal, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki which ended WWII.

The 60-year-old tunnel - constructed of wood and concrete - is next to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant, a former chemical processing plant, according to the Hanford Joint Information Center. "After extensive testing the site remains confident at this point that there has been no indication of worker exposure or an airborne radiological release".

"Officials continue to monitor the air and are working on how they will fix the hole in the tunnel roof", the Hanford Emergency Information site announced.

Ecology is requiring the federal Department of Energy, through an enforcement order, to immediately assess the integrity of the tunnels, one of which partially collapsed on Tuesday, and take swift corrective action.

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A site-area emergency is limited to Hanford boundaries but could affect staff beyond the immediate facility.

Eight rail cars are in the tunnel that collapsed, but it feeds into a longer tunnel that contains 28 loaded rail cars. Inside the tunnel are railcars that contain risky radioactive equipment used during the Cold War.

"The issue is whether or not there's sufficient wind to start sucking materials out of that tunnel and into the environment", said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a Hanford watchdog organization.

The governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, says there are "many questions" about how the collapse happened, reports member station Oregon Public Broadcasting.

"Moving forward, we're asking the federal government to take a more serious look at the risks that are happening". There is a massive volume of nuclear waste stored at the Hanford site, about the size of the USA state of Rhode Island, and not all of the storage sites are inspected daily, Heeter said. The most unsafe are 56 million gallons of waste stored in 177 aging underground storage tanks, some of which have leaked.

"Hanford sits next to the Columbia River". "There are various projects in this site and occasionally there is spread of contamination".

At its peak, the site consisted of nine nuclear reactors and four reprocessing plants, created to turn uranium into plutonium. That same year, six tanks at the site were found to be leaking radioactive waste. If something goes wrong, the cells could be damaged.

"The stored waste has to be treated in special rooms called black cells, which are too radioactive for humans to enter".

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