Friday, 25 May, 2018

Tunnel collapses at American nuclear weapons site

Tunnel collapses at American nuclear weapons site Tunnel collapses at American nuclear weapons site
Laurie Berry | 17 May, 2017, 11:12

One tunnel, about 110 meters long, contains eight rail cars loaded with contaminated equipment.

"Unfortunately, the crisis at Hanford is far from an isolated incident", said Kevin Kamps of the anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear.

The 177 large underground tanks hold some 200 million litres of radioactive waste.

The discovery prompted an emergency alert at the site, and as of noon, there was still no indication of any radioactive release.

The problem is that the USA government rushed to build nuclear weapons during the Cold War with little thought given to how to permanently dispose of the resulting waste.

"We're going to approach this slowly, safe and methodically", said Henderson. The cleanup has also been plagued with political and technical setbacks. The site just recently reopened.

The Energy Department said it activated its emergency operations protocol after reports of a "cave-in" at the 200 East Area in Hanford, a sprawling complex about 200 miles from Seattle where the government has been working to clean up radioactive materials left over from the country's nuclear weapons program. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and frequent Hanford critic.

Energy Department officials said that there was "no indication of a release of contamination at this point" but that crews were still testing the area for contamination. The federal government-operated facility was established in the 1940s.

Hanford is one of several active sites undergoing cleanup under the direction of the Department of Energy's Office of Environment Management.

Officials say no workers were inside the tunnel when it collapsed, causing soil on the surface above to sink 2 to 4 feet over a 400 square foot area. "The tunnels are made of wood and concrete".

Spokesman Destry Henderson, through a 6:30 a.m. Facebook video, said air monitors showed no sign of radiological release overnight.

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The cause of the collapse was not immediately known. Many contaminated pieces of equipment, including the rail cars, have been left in tunnels, he said.

The two tunnels are each hundreds of feet long and are covered with about 8 feet of soil, according to the Energy Department, which added that "the depth of the subsidence of soil appears to be into the tunnel". These tunnels are decades old. The tunnels were sealed in the mid-1990s and are checked periodically.

"Absolutely a huge warning to Hanford, to the federal officials who oversee that site, and to the state of Washington".

He noted the Energy Department past year received permission to delay removing waste from the tunnels until 2042. "There is a big hole there and radiation could be beaming out", he said.

Worker safety has always been a concern at Hanford, which is located about 200 miles southeast of Seattle.

The plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb tested in New Mexico and was also used in the atomic bomb that the USA dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. He said they would have been contaminated in the 1950s during the production of plutonium.

The cleanup there has cost $19 billion to date and is not expected to be finished until 2060, at an additional cost of $100 billion.

The budget for Hanford alone is about $2.3 billion in the current fiscal year, about $1.5 billion of that going to the management and treatment of approximately 56 million gallons of radioactive liquid waste now stored in underground storage tanks. Construction of a $17 billion glassification factory has stopped because of design and safety issues.

The plan is to bury the glass logs at a nuclear waste dump carved inside Nevada's Yucca Mountain, a project that has been on the drawing board for three decades but has run into resistance from Nevada politicians, including former U.S. Sen.

President Donald Trump has proposed $120 million to restart the licensing process for the dump.

Geranios reported from Spokane, Washington.

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