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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.

U.S. Dept. Of Energy Says Both Hanford Tunnels At High Risk For Further Collapse


The Hanford nuclear reservation in southeast Washington state has two train tunnels full of very hot radioactive waste—and both tunnels are in danger of further collapse. That’s according to a new report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Hanford workers discovered a collapse in Tunnel 1 in May. The tunnel is attached to a large plutonium processing facility at Hanford. The accident made worldwide news.

Declassified blueprints reveal how the failure happened. They show Tunnel 1 design and materials. It was built out of concrete, timbers and heavy-duty roofing covered in desert sand.  

Officials worried it could send up a plume of radioactive dust. So far, no release of radioactive waste has been detected by the federal government, and no workers have been injured. Federal contractors have covered the entire tunnel with a large industrial-strength tarp to prevent dust should the structure collapse further.

The collapse in May prompted the Washington state Department of Ecology to order the federal government to examine both tunnels and report back. Part of that report was made public on Friday, and confirmed the state’s suspicions that both tunnels were in bad shape.

Now the Energy Department says both Tunnel 1, and a slightly newer Tunnel 2, were designed poorly and are too old.

Stabilizing Tunnel 1 alone is expected to cost the country’s taxpayers $4 million to $7 million. That money will likely come out of Hanford’s groundwater cleanup budgets.

Hanford officials say they’ll use the summer to figure out how to fill Tunnel 1 with grout and what to do with Tunnel 2. It was constructed in 1964 and has collapsed twice in the past. 

“The risk of a future collapse of Tunnel 2 is considered high based on the stresses of several of the structural components of the facility,” said Doug Shoop, an Energy Department manager at Hanford.

Both tunnels hold large equipment on train cars that was used in the PUREX plant. The equipment was used to concentrate plutonium from irradiated uranium rods. When equipment was large and wore out, workers would drive the vats and parts into the tunnel with a remote locomotive. The contents of both tunnels are very contaminated, and no human can enter.

Washington state has told the Department of Energy to have an interim plan in place August 1. But coming up with a plan is tricky because no one’s been in these things for around 50 years. The tunnels are also covered with eight feel of soil, so officials are using historical documents to know what’s going on down there.  

There are hundreds of radioactive waste sites at Hanford. The tunnels and other massive sites at Hanford are all the leftovers from plutonium production for bombs during WWII and the Cold War.

So what’s going on with all that other aging infrastructure at Hanford?

The short answer from both the DOE and Ecology is … "we’re working on it." But there were no concrete answers.

The recent collapse of Tunnel 1 near a large plutonium factory has raised eyebrows—people wonder what else is out here that isn’t being monitored closely enough. Some of Hanford’s structures go back to the late 1940s and are only inspected once a decade.

Alex Smith is the top watchdog at Washington state’s Hanford office. She said fast-tracking the train tunnels will slow down other important work at Hanford, like groundwater cleanup.

But mostly, Ecology and the Energy Department are both going to have to look at cleaning up Hanford in a more holistic way now, she said. All the focus can’t just be on Hanford’s tank farms with 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in aging underground tanks.  

“We could just sort of put them off until we got further down the road and the waste treatment plant was up and running,” Smith said. “But as we all know those have been delayed. So we all need to be focusing on the whole site now, we can’t just wait until the Waste Treatment Plant is up and running.”

Energy officials said they are working on plans this to fill Tunnel 1 with grout by the New Year.

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.