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Tunnel Collapse Spurs Nuclear Site Alert

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

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A tunnel used to store contaminated materials at the Department of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington state suffered a 20-foot-by-20-foot collapse, officials reported Tuesday (May 9). The incident resulted in a shelter-in-place order for workers near the site of the cave-in.

Crews were still working to understand the full scope of the incident as of Tuesday afternoon, but said preliminarily that there was no indication of any release of contamination. The collapse area is adjacent to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, known as PUREX, and employees there were told to shelter in place.

Discovered by Workers

The collapse was discovered during routine surveillance by workers, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees the site. It is located where two tunnels used to store contaminated equipment meet; the tunnels were put into use in the 1950s, the DOE says. The tunnels are reportedly 360 feet long and 1,700 feet long, respectively, and covered by about 8 feet of soil.

The DOE said Tuesday afternoon that workers were inspecting the area visually and deploying a surveillance device capable of radiological and industrial hygiene monitoring. Officials will test for signs of contamination within a half-mile radius of the collapse.

The Washington Post reports that the equipment stored in the tunnels includes railcars that carried spent fuel. A former DOE official told the newspaper the older of the two tunnels is constructed with 14-inch-thick walls held up by pressure-treated wood timbers resting on reinforced concrete footings.

The collapse triggered a Site Area Emergency, officials said, which indicates that an event could affect personnel beyond the immediate facility where it has occurred, but not beyond the boundaries of the 586-square-mile Hanford Site.

Site History

Constructed in 1943 and 1944, the Hanford site, on the Columbia River in eastern Washington, was the world’s first plutonium production site. It was where the first nuclear bomb ever tested was built. The last reactor on the site closed in 1987, according to the DOE, and in 1989, the government began a large-scale cleanup effort.

The site has been subject to considerable controversy in recent years, related to both environmental concerns and alleged improprieties committed by contractors.

At least six of the 177 tanks storing radioactive waste on the site are leaking, an issue that officials say does not currently pose a threat to human health. Over the years, at least 67 of the tanks have leaked a total of at least 1 million gallons of waste, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

Last year, two contractors, Bechtel National Inc. and AECOM Technology Corp. (which bought Hanford contractor URS Corp. in 2014) settled with the Department of Justice to the tune of $125 million over charges that Bechtel and URS did subpar work over more than a decade at the site, charging the DOE for higher-quality materials than they actually used.

In September 2015, Washington state’s attorney general filed suit against the Department of Energy and Washington River Protection Solutions, a joint venture that includes URS, alleging that workers have been exposed to “noxious fumes and chemical vapors” at the site. A trial in that suit is set for this September.

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; concrete; Health & Safety; North America; Nuclear Power Plants; U.S. Department of Energy

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