Emergency Declared At Nuclear-Contaminated Site In Washington State

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Leroy N. Soetoro

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May 9, 2017, 5:09:53 PM5/9/17
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http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/09/527605496/emergency-
declared-at-nuclear-contaminated-site-in-washington-state

The Department of Energy has declared an emergency at a nuclear-
contaminated site in Washington state, after soil caved in over a portion
of a tunnel containing rail cars contaminated with nuclear waste.

"All personnel in the immediate are have been accounted for — they are
safe — and there is no evidence of a radiological release," Destry
Henderson, spokesperson for the Hanford site's emergency operations
center, said in a brief statement on Facebook.

Some employees have been evacuated and others told to move indoors as a
"precaution," officials say. Anna King of the Northwest News Network, a
public radio station collaboration, reports that approximately 3,000 other
workers in the area were originally taking cover indoors. Some have since
been released home, but those closest to the tunnel remain indoors.

There are no reports of injuries.

The Hanford Site, about 150 miles southeast of Seattle, is a former
nuclear production complex and home to a long-running, challenging and
sometimes troubled cleanup operation.

It's generally regarded as the most contaminated nuclear site in America.
The Department of Energy says it's the most challenging of the
government's nuclear cleanup projects, with millions of tons and hundreds
of billions of gallons of nuclear waste.

The Department of Energy says a 20-foot-by-20-foot section of soil caved
in where two underground tunnels meet next to the Plutonium Uranium
Extraction Facility, known as the PUREX plant.

The tunnels in question were storing rail cars that once carried
radioactive nuclear fuel from reactors to production facilities, back when
the site was still used to manufacture nuclear weapons. Each tunnel is
hundreds of feet long, the Hanford Site says; a 20-foot section appears to
have collapsed.

"There is no indication of a release of contamination at this point," the
Department of Energy says. Workers are continuing to evaluate the
situation, with the help of a remote-controlled device.

The site of the collapse had been previously identified as a potential
hazard, the Northwest News Network writes:

"In 2015, a preliminary report identified the tunnels and the PUREX
facility as a major risk area on the Hanford site. The report concluded if
the tunnels collapsed, from an earthquake or another natural cause, it
could pose a risk to workers because of the highly contaminated railcars
stored inside.
"Between 1960 and 1965, eight rail cars were pushed inside one tunnel,
full of radioactive waste. Another tunnel was constructed in 1964 to hold
40 additional railcars."
The governor of Washington Jay Inslee, says there are "many questions"
about how the collapse happened, reports member station Oregon Public
Broadcasting.

"We'll have to get to the bottom of that," he said. "At the moment we're
focusing on the safety of workers and making sure there's no release
beyond [the] immediate site."

OPB described the Hanford site, and the challenges of cleaning up nuclear
waste, late last year, as part of a project about the environmental impact
of the U.S. military in the Northwest:

"Hanford is the nation's largest nuclear cleanup site, with 56 million
gallons of radioactive waste sitting in old, leaky underground tanks just
a few hours upriver from Portland. After more than 20 years and $19
billion[,] not a drop of waste has been treated.

"Hanford sits next to the Columbia River. It was one of the original
Manhattan Project sites. Its nine nuclear reactors irradiated uranium fuel
rods. That created plutonium, which was extracted with chemicals,
processed and shipped to weapons factories. Each step produced radioactive
waste. ...

"The stored waste has to be treated in special rooms called black cells,
which are too radioactive for humans to enter. The machinery in these
black cells is supposed to operate for 40 years with no direct human
intervention. If something goes wrong, the cells could be damaged."
The treatment plant was originally supposed to be finished in 2007, but
the deadline has been extended several times, OPB reports.


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