Thousands of workers were told to take cover at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State after officials confirmed a tunnel collapse in its Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant (PUREX) full of highly contaminated materials on Tuesday morning, May 9, 2017. Although officials say that no contamination has been detected on the ground following the cave-in, local media report that the danger is still not over.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Richland Operations Office declared an emergency at the Hanford Site at approximately 8:30 PDT after a cave-in of a 20-foot (6 meters) section of a tunnel that is hundreds of feet long that is used to store contaminated materials. The tunnel is located next to the PUREX which is located in the center of the Hanford Site, in an area known as the 200 East Area. "No contamination has been detected following the cave-in," the agency said in a statement. "Crews are continuing to survey the area for contamination and workers are preparing to fill the hole created by the cave-in in order to stabilize the tunnel," it said.
As a precaution, workers in the vicinity of the PUREX facility as well as the Hanford Site north of the Wye Barricade (southern entrance to the site) were told to shelter in-place for a few hours. The shelter in place order was lifted in stages from noon to approximately 13:30, and employees were sent home early.
Only personnel essential to minimum safe operations are reporting to work, and non-essential personnel for swing and graveyard shifts were told not to report for work.
In 2015, a preliminary report identified the tunnels and the PUREX facility as a major risk area on the Hanford site. The report concluded if the tunnels collapsed, from an earthquake or another natural cause, it could pose a risk to workers because of the highly contaminated railcars stored inside.
Between 1960 and 1965, those eight loaded rail cars were pushed inside the tunnel that partially collapsed Tuesday, NW News Network writes. Another tunnel was constructed in 1964 to add space for 40 more railcars. Currently, it has 28 railcars full of radioactively contaminated equipment. The tunnels, which were built using concrete and wood, were sealed in the mid-1990s, according to the DOE Richland Office.
According to KING5, officials say a collapsed patch of ground above the tunnel was larger than first believed. The U.S. Department of Energy said the collapse covered about 400 square feet (37.1 square meters) instead of the 16 square feet (1.4 square meters) first reported. Their sources warned the danger is not over.
Tom Carpenter, the Executive Director of Hanford Challenge, said that this event is highly unusual. "This was an emergency alert that covered the enitire site and is still in place," he told KING5.
"This is absolutely a huge warning to Hanford, federal officials who oversee that site and to the State of Washington. There are bad things at Hanford that could blow up, that could contaminate the communities, be a three-state disaster," Carpenter said.
"Officials tell us that no contamination was wound on people closest to the hole or on the ground, but the key to making sure it stays that way is the wind," KING5 reporter Susannah Frame said. "If the wind were to pick up, that could circulate air down in that tunnel and release radioactive particles into the air," she said.
Featured image credit: KING5