Emergency Declared at Nuclear Waste Site in Washington State

The United States Department of Energy declared an emergency Tuesday, May 9, at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state. A 20-foot-by-20-foot cave-in formed in the underground tunnel which is the part of the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant (the PUREX plant). This tunnel was used to store contaminated materials, the Department of Energy said “the section that collapsed was in the area where two tunnels join together”, and added that “there has been no indication of worker exposure or an airborne radiological release.”

The Hanford site, which is located about 150 miles southeast of Seattle, was established in 1943 when the nation was put on a war footing and the war industries had become one of the most active in the country. It was established as a part of the Manhattan Project – U.S. government research and development project that was aimed to produce first nuclear weapons. The Manhattan project was approved by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 as the United States could not take risk of allowing Nazi Germany to achieve unilateral possession of atomic bombs. The Hanford site was the nation’s first plutonium production facility, it was the home of the famous B Reactor – first full-scale nuclear reactor ever built. Plutonium from graphite reactors of the Hanford site was used to create first ever nuclear bomb, which was tested at the Trinity site on July 16, 1945, and the “Fat Man” atomic bomb, which was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki on 9 August 1945.

For over forty years, at the Hanford nuclear site, more than 20 million pieces of uranium metal fuel for nine nuclear reactors were made. Five huge plants in the center of the Hanford Site processed 110,000 tons of fuel from the reactors, discharging an estimated 710,000 m³ of solid radioactive waste, and 520 km² of contaminated groundwater beneath the site. Now the Hanford site is a former nuclear production complex and home to a long-running and challenging cleanup project (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8eDFhHpf2s). Cleanup at Hanford is estimated by the U.S. Department of Energy to cost more than $60 billion, approximately 11,000 employees need to be involved, and take decades to complete. At the Hanford site two-thirds (more than 200.000 m³) of all nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume is stored.

The tunnel, part of which had collapsed this Tuesday, was constructed during the Cold War to hold rail cars and radiologically-contaminated equipment and materials that were used in the process of plutonium production. The Department of Energy says that no contamination was released so far, and none is likely. No workers were injured and everyone has been accounted for. The area near the tunnel is currently surveyed for contamination using remotely operated surveying device, a TALON, which is capable of radiological and industrial hygiene monitoring.

The Department of Energy announced that “the workforce has safely left the site, other than personnel essential to the recovery plan.” The radiological surveys are continuing.

7 replies
  1. jettyler
    jettyler says:

    The public wants the plant to be perfectly safe, the Congress wants the site’s cleanup to be perfectly cheap, everybody wants it to be done quick, no wonder that cleanup project is having problems.

  2. JohnM
    JohnM says:

    Due to some of the medial coverage, we have people saying they’re worried about radiation in cities that are miles away from the plant, but only low-level contaminated equipment is stored in that tunnel, it actually can’t effect people who live so far from the site. Sure, it is needed to control the situation and to check everything, but this old tunnel collapse has nothing at all to be feared.

    • lalin
      lalin says:

      “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” – Marie Curie.
      All those nuclear “issues” in fact represent negligible risks. Actually risks and impacts from other industries and energy sources (like fossil fuels) can be hundreds, thousands or millions of times larger.

    • Burt
      Burt says:

      Furthermore, there has never been a significant release of radioactivity from stored spent power reactor fuel.

      • Roman
        Roman says:

        Nuclear power unfairly got its bad name. Public concerns on it being unsafe have resulted in very strict nuclear regulations and requirements, whereas fossil fuels regulations are far more lax. Nuclear power has any measurable health impacts, it is almost non-polluting to nature, and it deserves to be treated almost the same as the renewables do.

  3. john
    john says:

    All those nuclear waste near Hanford site would not be cleaned at the nearest future. As long as it is there, it will make a huge money to private contractors.


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