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Environment and Planning
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.

Watch: How The Hanford Tunnel Failed

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MacGregor Campbell
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OPB

This spring, a tunnel at the Hanford nuclear site in southeast Washington caved in, threatening to expose radioactive waste. Declassified blueprints reveal how the failure happened. The tunnel cave-in happened outside of Hanford’s Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant - PUREX for short. The plant was built from 1953 to 1955 and opened “hot” in January 1956.

The plant’s main goal: to concentrate as much plutonium as possible from irradiated rods coming out of Hanford’s reactors.

Near the PUREX plant, Hanford workers filled an underground train tunnel with old railroad freight cars, containing used heavy equipment and contaminated with highly-radioactive waste.

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Credit MacGregor Campbell / OPB
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OPB
PUREX Tunnel 1 was filled with used heavy equipment.

But the tunnel’s design wasn’t meant to last forever. Blueprints show its design and materials. It was built out of concrete, timbers and heavy-duty roofing covered in desert sand.

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Credit MacGregor Campbell / OPB
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OPB
Tunnel 1 was built out of concrete and timbers, topped with desert sand.

Critics say it should have been stabilized or cleaned up decades ago. And one of the main concerns about the tunnel collapsing even further is that it could send up a radioactive plume of dust that could hurt workers or drift beyond the nuclear site.

Now, the Department of Energy plans to fill the tunnel with grout, so it can’t collapse again.

Right now, federal contractors are preparing to move large trailers near the site for workers. And they’re working on plans to improve the roads to PUREX, so trucks loaded with that grout can get there.

And Washington state’s Department of Ecology says it’s re-evaluating its own schedule to inspect old infrastructure and buildings like the waste tunnel.

But with hundreds of aging buildings and waste sites at Hanford from WWII and the Cold War — this tunnel collapse likely won’t be the last emergency at Hanford.