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Emergency declared at US nuclear site after waste storage tunnel collapse

10 May 2017

Hundreds of workers at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington State were forced to take cover on May 9 after a tunnel collapsed at the giant nuclear weapons and waste facility. Developed in 1943 as a nuclear reactor and processing plant, Hanford is considered to be the most contaminated nuclear site in the USA.

State Governor Jay Inslee said in a statement "The Department of Energy informed us this morning that a tunnel was breached that was used to bury radioactive waste from the production of plutonium at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation."

Following the incident, site management sent a message to workers telling them to “secure ventilation in your building” and to “refrain from eating or drinking.” The US Department of Energy activated its Emergency Operations Center following the collapse and some workers were told to evacuate while others were told to shelter-in-place as officials investigated the severity of the situation.

"This is a serious situation, and ensuring the safety of the workers and the community is the top priority," Governor Inslee said. "Our understanding is that the site went into immediate lock down, in which workers were told to seek shelter, and all access to the area has been closed."

A spokesperson for the Hanford site said that a 20-foot section of tunnel was discovered to have fallen in by workers on patrol in the area. The tunnel reportedly contained highly contaminated materials including nuclear waste trains that are used to transport radioactive fuel rods. 

A spokesperson said that there was no evidence to suggest that radioactive materials had been released and that all of the workers in the area were accounted for.

The  Department of Energy said in a statement:  “There are concerns about subsidence in the soil covering railroad tunnels near a former chemical processing facility. The tunnels contain contaminated materials.”

The nuclear site, located 200 miles from Seattleproduced more than 67 metric tonnes of plutonium for the US defence programme between 1944 and 1987.

More recently, a private contractor hired by the Department of Energy is working on a $110 billion project to clean up 56 million gallons of chemical and nuclear waste stored in as many as 177 underground tanks there.

Before the tunnel collapse, those tanks were reportedly leaking toxic and radioactive vapours and chemicals that have been linked to cancer, brain damage, and lung damage. There were at least 61 workers exposed to those deadly vapours last year.

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