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State, Feds Respond to Nuclear Site Incident

Friday, May 12, 2017

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Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has announced that the Department of Energy will launch an investigation into what went wrong at the Hanford Nuclear Site, where a tunnel housing contaminated equipment collapsed earlier this week.

At the same time, the state of Washington is taking action to penalize the DOE over the incident, which reportedly did not result in a leak of contamination, but spurred a lockdown across the 586-square-mile site.

The Collapse

Workers discovered the 20-foot-by-20-foot collapsed area Tuesday morning (May 9); it occurred at the confluence of two storage tunnels that date to the 1950s, and that have been used to store equipment such as railcars that were used to transport spent fuel at the site. Hanford was the world’s first plutonium production site, and was the facility where the first nuclear bomb ever tested was built. It has been subject to cleanup efforts for nearly 30 years.

The DOE, which oversees the site, issued a Site Area Emergency, calling on workers at the nearby Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant (PUREX) to shelter in place. The area was eventually evacuated. The emergency was cancelled late Tuesday night. Workers have since moved to fill the hole; the DOE said it may place a cover over the entire 360-foot tunnel that was affected, but its precise plans for dealing with the problem are not yet complete.

Secretary Perry said Wednesday (May 10) that the DOE would investigate what happened and why. The Washington Post reports that Perry, during a tour of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said “that the tunnel obviously deteriorated and the question that needs to be answered now is why that was allowed to happen.”

State Enforcement Action

The Washington Department of Ecology announced Wednesday that it is taking what it calls “swift legal action” against the DOE, “to hold the federal government accountable for its obligation to clean up the largest nuclear waste site in the country.”

“The infrastructure built to temporarily store radioactive waste is now more than a half-century old. The tunnel collapse is direct evidence that it's failing. It’s the latest in a series of alarms that the safety and health of Hanford workers and our citizens are at risk,” said Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon.

The state issued an enforcement notice to the DOE, demanding that it take corrective action to ensure the safety of the site in light of the incident.

Past Conflict

It’s not the first time the state has tangled with the DOE on the topic of Hanford.

Hanford workers
U.S. Dept. of Energy

The Washington Attorney General’s office is currently suing the DOE and a contractor on behalf of workers at the site who it says were exposed to “noxious fumes and vapors” during cleanup work.

The Washington Attorney General’s office is currently suing the DOE and a contractor on the site, Washington River Protection Solutions, on behalf of workers at the site who it says were exposed to “noxious fumes and vapors” during cleanup work. That suit pertains to a period during 2014 and 2015 when the state says at least 50 workers needed medical attention due to exposure to chemical vapors at Hanford.

The Department of Ecology has also issued fines in the past to the DOE and a contractor on the site, C2HM Hill, over alleged hazardous waste violations.

Tank Leaks

The “tank farm” on the Hanford site holds 177 underground storage tanks, which contain 56 million gallons of nuclear waste.

In 2012, the DOE discovered that one double-shell tank, Tank AY-102, was leaking into its secondary containment. In 2013, a single-shell tank, T-111, was reported to be leaking. In the past, 67 of the tanks have leaked at least 1 million gallons of waste, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.



Tagged categories: concrete; Environmental Protection; North America; Nuclear Power Plants; Program/Project Management; U.S. Department of Energy

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