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12 May 2017, 12:37 | Violet Powell
The collapse of an underground tunnel containing radioactive waste that forced workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to shelter in place is the latest incident to raise safety concerns at the sprawling site that made plutonium for nuclear bombs for decades after World War II.
The most risky waste at Hanford is 56 million gallons stored in 177 underground tanks, some of which have leaked.
Employees at the Hanford Site plant were sent an alert by management telling them to take cover, "secure ventilation" and refrain from eating or drinking.
Monitoring detected no released radiation, and workers moved into the area to prepare to fill the tunnel breach, said Destry Henderson, a Hanford spokesman, early Wednesday.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently called it "one of the most polluted sites that we have in this country".
The Hanford facility in south-central Washington State is one of those costly relics of the USA nuclear weapons buildup during the Cold War.
Governor Inslee said a planned state enforcement order would require the U.S. Department of Energy to determine the cause of the collapse and assess if any other tunnels are at risk of failing as well.
"The infrastructure built to temporarily store radioactive waste is now more than a half-century old".
While the Department of Energy says no radiation has escaped from the damaged tunnel, Hanford has a long history of problems.
An emergency operations protocol was declared by the Energy Department after the cave in. A 2015 academic report, done for the Department of Energy, warned that a seismic event could lead to the "total structural failure" of both tunnels.
The cleanup at Hanford started more than 25 years ago, but it's far from finished.
Luckily, there was no sign of any release of radioactive materials. About 50 truckloads of soil would be needed to "stabilize that portion of the tunnel", the department said.
New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone said the incident underscores the need for the Department of Energy to take all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of workers.
Worker safety has always been a concern at Hanford, which is located about 200 miles southeast of Seattle. One tunnel, about 110 meters long, contains eight rail cars loaded with contaminated equipment. The entire campus is in cleanup and decommissioning mode, as the DOE is dealing with the legacy of the US military's plutonium weapons production that was the Hanover site's primary goal from 1942 until 1987. But that's not to say the site - which was never created to hold this much waste for as long as it has - doesn't pose other environmental risks. There was an emergency situation at this site in Washington state after a tunnel full of highly contaminated materials collapsed.
The most risky waste at Hanford is 56 million gallons stored in 177 underground tanks, some of which have leaked. The remaining cleanup is expected to cost almost $108 billion by the time it is completed in 2060.
Plans to embed the toxic stew in glass logs for burial have floundered.
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