Hanford Nuclear Site Evacuated Over Emergency

An emergency has been declared Tuesday, May 9, 2017, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation after a portion of a tunnel that contained rail cars full of nuclear waste collapsed.

Cleaning up radioactive materials has been a problem for years at the site in Hanford, which is a small agricultural community in Washington, about 200 miles southeast of Seattle. "Collapse of the earth covering the tunnels could lead to a considerable radiological release".

The latest estimate to finish the overall cleanup of Hanford is more than $107 billion and the work would take until 2060.

Workers in one building were evacuated, and others in the immediate vicinity were ordered to take cover and turn off ventilation systems as a precaution after minor damage was discovered in the wall of a transport tunnel, a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy said by telephone from the Hanford Joint Information Center. And although workers were being sent home for the day, it didn't sound like anyone was in any immediate danger.

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry was briefed on the incident that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee called it a serious situation.

The anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear said the incident helped show "radioactive waste management is out of control".

Mostly decommissioned, Hanford has been a subject of controversy and conflict between state and local authorities, including a lawsuit over worker safety and ongoing cleanup delays. Federal officials said there was no sign that any radioactive material had leaked after crews discovered that a 20-foot section of a 100-foot long tunnel - containing rail cars filled with nuclear waste - had caved in.

The Hanford Site was part of the Manhattan Project, which led to the production of the first atomic bombs, including the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

The sprawling Hanford site is located near Richland and is half the size of Rhode Island.

Worker safety has always been a concern at Hanford.

Ferguson said that since the early 1980s, hundreds of workers have been exposed to vapors escaping from the tanks and that those breathing the vapors developed nosebleeds, chest and lung pain, headaches, coughing, sore throats, irritated eyes and difficulty breathing.

No spent nuclear fuel is stored in the tunnel, Energy Department officials said.