History of Hanford nuclear waste site

Violet Tucker
May 10, 2017

A tunnel collapse at Hanford nuclear waste site about 200 miles from Seattle on Tuesday morning resulted in hundreds of workers being told to "take cover" before being evacuated from the site.

The damage was more serious than initially reported, and the take-cover order was expanded to cover the entire facility after response crews found a 400-square-foot section of the decommissioned rail tunnel had collapsed, center spokesman Destry Henderson said in a video posted on Facebook.

"No action is now required for residents of Benton and Franklin counties", the U.S. Energy Department said, referring to the almost 300,000 residents near the site about 200 miles southeast of Seattle. Workers farther away were told to remain indoors.

The Hanford site for decades produced plutonium for American nuclear weapons, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in World War II.

While authorities continue to investigate this incident, the main concern is that the radioactive material inside the tunnels could be released into the air.

Crews are now surveying the area near the PUREX tunnels for contamination. "At the moment we're focusing on the safety of workers and making sure there's no release beyond [the] immediate site".

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The PUREX plant has been vacant for almost 20 years, according to the Hanford Site website, but remains "highly contaminated" after housing operations to chemically process irradiated fuel rods to recover the plutonium contained within them.

Tom Carpenter, the executive director with watchdog organization Hanford Challenge who has spoken with workers at the site since the incident, called the tunnel collapse worrisome and said the evacuation was the correct call. A spokesperson said there was no evidence any radioactive materials had been released and all workers in the area were accounted for.

May 9, 2017The dark area underneath the tall orange flag is the collapse site - a hole left by the tunnel collapse.

Hanford is the largest depository of radioactive waste, containing 56 million gallons of it, mostly in underground tanks.

The PUREX facility is about 19 miles from north Richland and seven miles from the Columbia River. It was one of the original Manhattan Project sites. The plant was also used to produce more than 20 million pieces of uranium metal fuel for for those reactors. That created plutonium, which was extracted with chemicals, processed and shipped to weapons factories. The machinery in these black cells is supposed to operate for 40 years with no direct human intervention.

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