Though this incident was widely reported we put it on record here in case any of May’s visitors (left) missed it.
The US Department of Energy declared an emergency after a ‘transport’ tunnel filled with nuclear waste collapsed in Washington state at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, home to 53 million gallons of radioactive waste.
The tunnel was reported to contain highly contaminated materials including trains that are used to transport radioactive fuel rods, with eight rail cars filled with nuclear waste.
The cave-in was discovered during “routine surveillance,” according to the Energy Department. Photographs showed a gaping hole, plainly evident because the tunnels are largely above ground.
4,800 workers were forced to “take cover” but officials said no workers were exposed or airborne emissions detected and robots were deployed to take more air samples.
Officials with the Department of Energy’s Hanford Joint Information Center said that before evacuation, workers turned off ventilation systems. In a video posted on Facebook, center spokesman Destry Henderson said that a 20-foot section of the roof had caved in and damage was later found to be more serious than initially reported.
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: “This is purely precautionary. No employees were hurt and there is no indication of a spread of radiological contamination,” Henderson said.
Following the incident a manager sent a message to workers telling them to “secure ventilation in your building” and to “refrain from eating or drinking.”
A private contractor hired by the Department of Energy has been working on a $110 billion project to clean up 56 million gallons of chemical and nuclear waste stored in as many as 177 underground tanks there.
The Seattle Times reported that the day after the collapse was detected, workers began to fill the 400-square-foot hole.
Professor Rod Ewing (Stanford) a nuclear security researcher, said by phone: “How can waste be left in a tunnel? Whose idea was that? I’ve been to Hanford many, many times for conferences and things like that, and I don’t recall anyone saying that there was waste in tunnels underground. I can’t imagine why that would be the case.”
12 days after the report of the tunnel collapse, radioactive material was found on a worker’s clothing. A contractor with Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), detected a spike in radiation levels on a device called a “crawler” that had been pulled out of a nuclear waste tank. “Established decontamination procedures were followed, which involves removing the contaminated clothing.
Those tanks were earlier reported to be leaking toxic and radioactive vapours and chemicals that have been linked to cancer, brain damage, and lung damage. There were at least 61 workers exposed to those deadly vapours last year. Experts have called the location “the most toxic place in America” and “an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen.”
Sources: Quartz, The Independent, Washington Post, Reuters, CBS news, Seattle Times