A tunnel containing radioactive waste caved in at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Richland on Tuesday morning, forcing nearly 4,800 workers to take cover indoors.
Thousands of workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Richland were forced to take cover indoors after a tunnel containing radioactive waste collapsed Tuesday morning, government officials said.
Nearly 4,800 workers at the nuclear site were told to shelter indoors, an Energy Department spokeswoman said. At around noon Tuesday, workers outside of the facility where the cave-in occurred were cleared and sent home early.
At around 1:35 p.m., five hours after the incident was declared an emergency, remaining workers were allowed to go home. About 3,000 workers had been sheltering in a facility near the collapse in the 200 East Area, which houses an old plutonium-processing facility.
Nonessential swing-shift workers were told to stay home Tuesday evening. On Wednesday morning, nonessential workers who report north of the site’s Wye Barricade were told to stay home.
There was no indication of a radiation release, but crews were continuing to survey for contamination, the department said. Crews were hand-surveying outer areas around the tunnels, but closer to the breach were using a remote-controlled device that can do radiological monitoring and take video.
“The Department of Energy informed us this morning that a tunnel was breached that was used to bury radioactive waste from the production of plutonium at the Hanford nuclear reservation,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “This is a serious situation and ensuring the safety of the workers and the community is the top priority.”
Inslee said the White House had reached out to his office.
“Our understanding is that the site went into immediate lockdown in which workers were told to seek shelter and all access to the area has been closed,” Inslee said.
Emergency officials restricted flights from passing over the Hanford nuclear reservation, a 580-square-mile area bordering the Columbia River.
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. About 8,000 people are currently working on a massive cleanup that is expected to cost more than $100 billion and last through 2060.
“This is sort of a forgotten legacy of the nuclear age,” said Paul Carroll, who is the director of programs for the nuclear-nonproliferation group Ploughshares Fund and previously worked on nuclear cleanup programs for the Department of Energy. “We don’t know how to deal with this stuff.”
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.
“At that point after noticing the soil had sunk over one of the tunnels there was an emergency declared,” Henderson said. “Upon an additional investigation, crews noticed a portion of that tunnel had fallen, the roof had caved in about a 20-foot section of that tunnel which is more than 100 feet long.”
Railcars filled with radioactive waste are buried in the wood and concrete tunnels, which are covered by about 8 feet of soil.
A 20-by-20-foot area of soil above the tunnels “subsided,” the Department of Energy said Tuesday, significantly upgrading the scale of the breach from its previous estimate. Earlier, the department had estimated the size of the breached roof area at about 4 feet by 4 feet.
The Department of Energy opened an emergency operations center at the site just before 8:30 a.m.
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The incident was initially declared an “alert emergency,” the lowest level of emergency classification at the site, but was later upgraded to a “site area emergency.” A site-area emergency is limited to the boundaries of the Hanford site but could affect staff beyond the immediate facility.
“No action is required for residents of Benton and Franklin counties,” the department said. Nearly 275,000 people live in the two counties that border the site.
The 200 East Area where the incident occurred is located in the center of the reservation. It is home to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant, also known as PUREX, a massive facility more than three football fields in length that was used to recover plutonium from irradiated uranium fuel rods.
The building, which extends 40 feet below ground and is more than six stories tall, has been vacant for nearly 20 years but remains highly contaminated.
The PUREX facility is about 19 miles from north Richland and seven miles from the Columbia River.
In 2016, in an advisory letter to Department of Energy officials, the Hanford Advisory Board asked officials to “expeditiously investigate whether the PUREX tunnels pose a high risk and, if so, to then negotiate milestones to begin planning for their remediation.”
Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a nonprofit that works to hold the Department of Energy accountable on its cleanup efforts, called Tuesday’s cave-in a “wake-up call.”
“They’ve got 177 underground nuclear-waste tanks, most of them were built in the 1940s,” Carpenter said. “If this were a tank that had collapsed that would be much, much worse than anything you hear right now. They need to get on top of their risks.”