Tunnel collapse renews safety concerns about nuclear site

Hanford Nuclear site radioactive waste
A holdover from the Manhattan Project the Hanford site is the largest repository of nuclear waste in the United States
Author

12 May, 2017

Workers on Wednesday began to plug a hole inside a collapsed tunnel at a nuclear site in the western U.S. state of Washington where an emergency was declared and thousands of workers placed on lockdown. Mark Heeter with the U.S. Department of Energy said contractors will be using around 50 loads of clean fill dirt from a large dump site at Hanford to cover up the hole.

The collapse of a tunnel containing radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear weapons complex underscored what critics have always been saying: The toxic remnants of the Cold War are being stored in haphazard and unsafe conditions, and time is running out to deal with the problem.

Workers in town and at the 300 Area of Hanford just north of Richland were to report to work as usual. "But while we're doing that we have to keep our eye on the ball to have safety for our employees who work there and - if you have collapsing tunnels that could expose workers, this is a very dramatic concern that we have". "We're going to approach this slowly, safely and methodically".

The senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee says he is requesting that the Energy Department brief the panel on the cause of a tunnel collapse at a nuclear waste storage site in Washington state.

The last reactor at Hanford shut down in 1987 and since then some 9,000 people have been working to clean up millions of gallons of leftover waste stored in 177 aging tanks. "As Secretary, the safety of our workforce, the communities and tribal nations that surround our sites, and the environment is my highest priority".

The rail tunnel was built in 1956 out of timber, concrete and steel, topped by 8 feet of dirt.

The federal agency was expected to take those actions without prodding, but the state made the move in its role as the regulator of a massive, ongoing cleanup of the site.

Hanford is now the biggest reservoir of radioactive defense waste which must be cleaned. "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".

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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.

No workers were inside the tunnel when it collapsed, and other workers who were ordered to shelter-in-place were later sent home early as a precaution, Hanford said. Another tunnel was constructed in 1964 to hold 40 additional railcars. He said the federal government has failed over the years to remove the waste in a timely manner.

"No action is now required for residents of Benton and Franklin counties", the Energy Department said on Tuesday, referring to the almost 300,000 residents near the site.

"This is a serious situation", Washington Governor Jay Inslee said in reassurance.

"There is no indication of a release of contamination at this point", the Department of Energy says.

The Hanford Site was part of the Manhattan Project, which led to the production of the first atomic bombs, including the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

The committee oversees the department's management of the cleanup efforts.


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