Crews begin to fill collapsed Hanford tunnel

May 12, 2017, 12:36
Crews begin to fill collapsed Hanford tunnel

The large sinkhole that caved in a tunnel filled with radioactive waste at a sprawling Washington state nuclear waste repository may have gone unnoticed for days before its discovery because workers do not patrol tunnel sites daily, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy said Thursday.

A gravel road was built to the collapse site, and workers wearing protective suits and breathing masks planned to fill the hole with 50 truckloads of dirt, the Energy Department said. It said no radiation has been released.

So workers began putting the contaminated equipment in a pair of concrete tunnels in the 1950s, which are buried in the soil more than two metres deep.

Hanford is the main repository for USA nuclear waste going back to the wartime Manhattan Project.

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Washington Post yesterday that there is considerable cause for concern about the tunnel collapse, notwithstanding reassurances from government officials.

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On Tuesday morning, about six Hanford employees on routine rounds noticed that an area of soil over one of the tunnels had sunk, Henderson said.

The area contains about 56 million gallons (211.98 million liters) of radioactive waste, most of it in 177 underground tanks.

Hanford, a 500-square-mile (1,300-square-kilometer) expanse in remote interior Washington about 200 miles from Seattle, was created during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

Perry made the comments during a tour of Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico, another one of the federal sites dealing with the cleanup of Cold War-era waste from decades of bomb-making and nuclear research.

Hanford, located in southcentral Washington state, has about 9,000 employees and a lot of them were told to stay home Wednesday.

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Carpenter said that radioactive gamma rays are "certainly" coming out of the tunnel, but those diffuse quickly with distance and are not carried by wind.

The gaping hole in the lengthy tunnel was later filled with clean soil and temporarily closed to outsiders. And while the older tunnel is reinforced with timber, Alvarez said, "according to a 1997 DOE report, inspection of the tunnels 'is not feasible because of radiation levels in excess of five roentgens per hour.' " A roentgen is a measure of radioactive exposure.

Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons and now is engaged in cleaning up the resulting waste.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been briefed on the situation was told the agency will continue to monitor the situation. 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 former nuclear weapons production site employs more than 9,000 people, majority involved in cleaning up the nation's largest collection of nuclear waste. The sinkhole occurred near the point where a short rail line meets a longer one. Experts say that exposure to plutonium and uranium, another radioactive element that may be present in unsafe levels in the tunnel, can be deadly to humans and animals.

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