The Hanford nuclear site in Washington state — one of the largest and most contaminated storehouses of radioactive waste in the US — is currently undergoing an emergency.
The Department of Energy oversees Hanford. It’s a Cold War-era facility that led US production of plutonium for use in tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.
The site no longer produces plutonium. However, millions of gallons’ worth of radioactive waste is still stored there, and workers are carrying out a lengthy process of decommissioning the nuclear reservation, which The Seattle Times dubbed “the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site” in 2007.
The 586-square-mile site was put under a precautionary “take cover” order on Tuesday because a tunnel containing radioactive materials partially caved in, according to a Hanford emergency bulletin. Nonessential employees were later permitted to leave, and “the last of the employees in the vicinity of the tunnels were released from work” around 4:35 p.m. EDT.
Officials are trying to determine how to address the busted tunnel, according to the bulletin.
On Tuesday at 11:26 a.m. Eastern, Hanford posted an emergency bulletin that called on employees to evacuate and take shelter near “a former chemical processing facility” in its 200 East Area — specifically, at a 200-acre facility called the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant, or PUREX.
Two long rail yard tunnels feed into the plant. About half-dozen workers discovered the hole in earth covering one of the tunnels this morning, triggering the evacuation, Destry Henderson, a spokesman for the Hanford Emergency Center, said during a live press briefing on Hanford’s Facebook page on Tuesday afternoon.
“All personnel in the immediate area have been accounted for, they are safe, and there’s been no evidence for a radiological release,” Henderson said. “Upon an additional investigation, crews noticed a portion of that tunnel had fallen — the roof had caved in — about a 20-foot section of that tunnel, which is more than 100 feet long.”