Nuclear Energy

Here’s what you need to know about the nuclear waste storage tunnel collapse

A tunnel containing radioactive waste collapsed Tuesday morning at a facility in rural Washington state that for decades produced plutonium used in nuclear weapons.

No one was inside the tunnel when it collapsed, but workers at the facility located about 200 miles southeast of Seattle were evacuated, while others were told to remain inside, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. As of about noon local time, radiation leaks had not been detected.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The U.S. Department of Energy activated the Hanford Emergency Operations Center at 8:26 a.m. Tuesday morning following a cave-in that created a 20-by-20-foot hole [pictured below] in the roof of the tunnel.
The collapsed tunnel roof at Hanford
  • About 3,000 employees were told to remain indoors.
  • The 586-square-mile site was first used to produce plutonium in 1943. After a brief hiatus, it continued production from 1947 until 1987. Two years later, the U.S. Department of Energy, the EPA, and Washington state agreed to work together to clean up the heavily contaminated complex.
  • Over the course of its operating lifetime, the facility produced nearly 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste that is currently stored in 177 underground tanks. As a result, Hanford is often thought of as the most toxic site in America.
  • In 1998, former Washington Gov. Gary Locke called Hanford an “underground Chernobyl waiting to happen.”
  • A spokesperson with the Hanford Emergency Center discussed the collapse on Facebook Live.
  • The Department of Energy said “Secretary [Rick] Perry has been briefed on the incident [and] the Department will continue to monitor this closely.”

  • A robot was reportedly being used to test contamination at the site.
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