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Disasters and Accidents
00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Tunnel Caves In At Hanford Nuclear Site, Thousands Of Workers Take Cover

The U.S. Department of Energy issued an emergency alert Tuesday morning at the Hanford site north of Richland, Washington, after a tunnel at a radioactive cleanup site caved in. Workers at a former chemical processing plant were evacuated and thousands more across Hanford were directed to take shelter indoors.

State and federal officials said all workers were accounted for, there were no injuries and no indication of “release” of radioactivity into the environment. By early afternoon, the employees taking shelter were given permission to go home except those needed for emergency response.

In a Facebook Live session, Hanford spokesman Destry Henderson explained that the emergency was triggered Tuesday morning when workers noticed the roof over a tunnel used to store contaminated equipment had sunk.

“Crews noticed a portion of that tunnel had fallen, the roof had caved in, about a 20-foot section of that tunnel which is more than 100 feet long,” Henderson explained.

This happened adjacent to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant cleanup site. The plant, also known by its acronym PUREX, was used during the Cold War to chemically extract plutonium from irradiated fuel rods for use in nuclear weapons. Rail cars carried the radioactive fuel rods into the plant via either of two tunnels.

"Workers continue to monitor the area for contamination as a crew prepares to fill the hole with clean soil," read a late-afternoon update on the Hanford Emergency Information website. "The approximately 360-foot-long tunnel where the partial collapse occurred contains 8 rail cars loaded with contaminated equipment."

A spokesman for the Washington Emergency Management Division said the state Emergency Operations Center was activated and is monitoring the situation. Oregon's Department of Energy, which has responsibility for radiological safety, also activated an emergency operations center.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, in a statement, called the situation serious and said the safety of workers and the community was the top priority.

“Federal, state and local officials are coordinating closely on the response, and the state Department of Ecology is in close communication with the U.S. Department of Energy Richland Office,” Inslee’s statement said.

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, those eight loaded rail cars were pushed inside the tunnel that partially collapsed Tuesday. Another tunnel was constructed in 1964 to add space for 40 more railcars. Currently it has 28 railcars full of radioactively contaminated equipment. The tunnels, which were built using concrete and wood, were sealed in the mid-1990s, according to the DOE Richland Office.

“There’s lots of legacy out there, and there are a few places where there is substantial, ongoing risks, and (the tunnels are) one of them,” said Charles Powers, a co-author of the risk report.

OPB's Molly Solomon contributed to this report