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Tunnel collapses at Hanford nuclear plant in Washington state

A 20-foot section of tunnel holding contaminated materials collapsed on Tuesday, May 9 at the Hanford Site, a decommissioned nuclear plant in Washington state.

Hanford Site is a decommissioned nuclear production complex run by the US federal government on the Columbia River. During the Cold War the site was used to run nine nuclear reactors and five plutonium processing complexes.

Hanford’s emergency operations center reported the collapse occurred over a tunnel next to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility. The tunnel is used to store and move radioactive materials and is hundreds of feet in length. About eight feet of soil typically covers the tunnel.

Responders are on the scene and are reporting the soil has subsided in an area approximately 20 feet by 20 feet over one of the tunnels next to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, also known as PUREX. There is no indication of a release of contamination at this point.

Hanford Emergency Operations Center

KING news reports road work in the area could have contributed to the collapse. KING reporter Susanna Frame said the collapse was connected to the plutonium uranium extraction plant. Initial reports said it was at the plutonium finishing plant.

The Department of Energy has activated the Hanford Emergency Operations Center.

Faculty personnel were evacuated. Employees in potentially-affected areas at the plant were advised to secure ventilation and “refrain from eating or drinking” although no known threat is present.

Hanford was put onto the National Priorities List in 1988 and designated a hazardous waste site, making the location eligible for federal funding under the Superfund program.

Hanford Site sign. Image: Tobin/flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The reactors were decommissioned after the Cold War, and the Department of Energy continues to work to clean up the site.

Previous alerts have been issued at Hanford, including last April when a tank of radioactive sludge sprung a leak.

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