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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.

Hanford Managers Unveil New Plan For Unstable Tunnels At Nuclear Site

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U.S. Department of Energy
File photo of PUREX Tunnel 2 during construction. A U.S. Department of Energy report says both both Tunnel 2 and Tunnel 1 are in danger of further collapse.

Washington state officials have been waiting to see how the U.S. Department of Energy plans to deal with an unstable tunnel filled with radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear site.

On Tuesday DOE came back with a plan of sorts. They propose to watch this tunnel more closely and assemble an expert panel to figure out the next steps.

There are two tunnels at Hanford. Tunnel 1 was built in 1956 and Tunnel 2, in 1964. They were both used to store large pieces of highly-radioactive equipment from the PUREX plant, a large plutonium processing factory. That equipment is still very hazardous to humans, and no one has entered either tunnel in decades.

Tunnel 1 was found partially collapsed this spring. Hanford officials plan to fill that one with grout by the end of the year.

Tunnel 2, the tunnel in question, is a much larger tunnel right next door that’s also in danger of caving in. It contains 28 railcars full of large, old equipment that’s highly radioactive.

Federal managers are exploring all sorts of options to stabilize Tunnel 2. And they're now saying they want experts to help them figure out. DOE said it plans to hold a public meeting in the future and gather public input on the new plan for Tunnel 2.

Some of the final options DOE is considering for Tunnel 2:

  • Filling it with grout like Tunnel 1
  • Filling it with expanding foam?
  • Putting a roof or structure over it
  • Making a controlled collapse