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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.

Digging Into The History Of Hanford's Radioactive Waste Tunnels

One week ago workers found a tunnel filled with radioactive waste caved in at the Hanford nuclear site in southeast Washington. State officials and tribes are calling for quick cleanup action.

But how did we get here?

Historian Michele Gerber wrote a 64-page report on the history of the PUREX plant 24 years ago. PUREX is short for the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant. And now, its tunnels are infamous since the cave-in was discovered. The plant was built from 1953 to 1955 and opened “hot” in January 1956.

“It was President Eisenhower’s most important project,” Gerber said. “When he was elected he called it Project X. And this project was literally number one in his priorities was to increase nuclear weapons production for a program that he called ‘Massive Retaliation.’”

Gerber said then, in the early Cold War, Eisenhower wanted to look strong to deter the Russians. So he built a plutonium-making war horse. ?

Credit Courtesy Michele Gerber
Courtesy Michele Gerber
This photo shows the scale of the PUREX plant and it's support buildings at the Hanford nuclear site. The plant is longer than three football fields.

The PUREX plant is longer than three football fields. It stands 64 feet above the ground, and goes another 40 feet below ground. Its job was to concentrate as much plutonium as possible from irradiated rods coming out of Hanford’s reactors. It was efficient.

“In one month it could do what a World War II plant would take 26 months to do,” Gerber said.

Building a train to nowhere

Water-filled railcars brought the radioactive rods to the plant. The rods were lifted out by remote crane and then dissolved with acids. Plutonium traveled through the long plant in different baths of chemicals. It became more and more concentrated. ?

Workers were shielded from dose by huge concrete walls. ?

Credit Courtesy Michele Gerber
Courtesy Michele Gerber
A worker preps a large piece of radioactive equipment to be stored in the underground tunnels near the PUREX Plant.

Don Wodrich, was a mechanical engineer who supported work on PUREX and other plants for about 40 years. He described what happened to the equipment after it was exposed to all those chemicals in the plant.

“Sometimes those pieces of equipment would fail. They might corrode through from the acids or something,” Wodrich said. “And so then they would have to be remotely removed and disposed of so the new piece could be put in its place.”

And that’s where this train to nowhere was needed. The same train tunnel that recently collapsed.

“And for much of the equipment that was smaller -- they could put it in a concrete box and put it on a flat car on a railroad tunnel and take it out to the burial grounds and bury it,” Wodrich said. “But for some of the very large pieces of equipment that were very radioactive, they couldn’t get a box big enough to hold the equipment and yet get it out of the tunnel.”

‘Obviously a very poor construction method’

The tunnel was made of creosoted railroad timbers and concrete.

Credit Don Wodrich
Don Wodrich was a mechanical engineer who supported work on the PUREX plant.

“Was always a concern about how long that would last,” Wodrich said. “And I, I can recall people many many years ago worried about that and saying we need to go see how that’s doing and how long that might last.”

“It’s obviously a very poor construction method in our view, in our terms, we would never do anything like that,” Gerber said. “We know radiation breaks down materials, it breaks down wood. It causes wood to decay and collapse.”

But there are so many things to clean up at Hanford. Radioactive sludge in house-sized tanks underground. Radioactive cesium capsules bathed in a large pool. And hundreds of contaminated buildings -- five of which are giants like the PUREX plant. The train tunnel might have just been pretty low on the Hanford to-do list. Or the nation’s.

“There are so many issues: Medical coverage, entitlements, defense,” Gerber said. “It’s really hard I suppose to think about these old DOE sites. But, somebody has to fix them.”

The tunnel is a reminder of all that’s buried deep at Hanford.

Credit Courtesy Michele Gerber
Courtesy Michele Gerber
Construction of PUREX tunnel 2 looking north. This tunnel is made of steel and concrete and was built more recently than the tunnel that collapsed.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.