Nonessential personnel released after Hanford tunnel collapse - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Nonessential personnel released after Hanford tunnel collapse

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UPDATE FROM HANFORD: 7:14 PM, Tuesday May 9

Due to the emergency at the Hanford Site today, non-essential personnel who work north of the Wye Barricade are being advised not to report for graveyard shift tonight. Only essential employees needed to maintain minimum safe operations are to report to work. An emergency was declared at the site at approximately 8:30 a.m. this morning. Employees at the site were advised to take cover for a few hours as a precaution, with non-essential employees released by approximately 1:30 this afternoon after no contamination was detected.

UPDATE FROM HANFORD: 5:58 PM, Tuesday May 9

In the 1950s and 1960s two tunnels were constructed next to a former chemical processing plant, the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant, or PUREX, located in an industrial area near the center of the Hanford Site called the 200 East Area. The tunnels were constructed of wood and concrete and covered with approximately 8 feet of soil. The tunnels were constructed to hold rail cars that were loaded with contaminated equipment and moved into the tunnels during the Cold War.

During a routine surveillance of the area this morning, a 20-foot-wide hole in the roof of one of the tunnels was observed, leading to the precautionary sheltering of employees and notifications to area counties and states. After no contamination was detected, the shelter in place order was lifted and employees were sent home from work early as a precaution. Workers continue to monitor the area for contamination as a crew prepares to fill the hole with clean soil.

The approximately 360-foot-long tunnel where the partial collapse occurred contains 8 rail cars loaded with contaminated equipment. That tunnel feeds into a longer tunnel that extends hundreds more feet and contains 28 rail cars loaded with contaminated equipment. The hole opened up in the shorter tunnel near where it joins the longer tunnel. The tunnels were sealed in the mid-1990s and are checked periodically.

UPDATE FROM HANFORD: 2:20 PM, Tuesday May 9th

Workers on swing shift at the Hanford Site who are not needed for essential site operations this evening are being told to not come into work tonight, as officials determine how to address a partial cave-in of a tunnel near a facility in the center of the site that was discovered this morning. Workers considered essential for site operations are being told to report to work while avoiding the area of the emergency.

The tunnel is one of two constructed during the Cold War near the site’s Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant, or PUREX Plant, to store contaminated equipment from plutonium production operations at the site in southeastern Washington state. The tunnels were constructed of wood and concrete with a soil covering approximately 8 feet deep. The tunnels are located east of the PUREX Plant and extend to the south. The plant and tunnels are located near the center of the Hanford Site, in an area known as the 200 East Area.

During a routine surveillance of the area, a hole in the roof of one of the tunnels was discovered. Personnel in the immediate vicinity were evacuated as a precaution out of concern for the potential for the release of contamination. No contamination has been detected as a result of the partial cave-in of a section of the tunnel’s roof. Workers continue to monitor the area for contamination.

Officials declared an emergency for Hanford Site personnel and advised employees in the vicinity of the PUREX Plant to shelter indoors. The take cover was later expanded to Hanford Site employees within the security boundary of the government site north of Richland, Wash. At around noon, most of those employees were told to leave work early as a precaution. At around 1:35 the last of the employees in the vicinity of the tunnels were released from work early.

Officials continue to monitor the air and are working on how they will fix the hole in the tunnel roof. They are looking at options that would provide a barrier between the contaminated equipment in the tunnel and the outside air that would not cause the hole in the tunnel’s roof to widen.

UPDATE FROM HANFORD: 1:35 PM, Tuesday, May 9th

Non-essential employees in the vicinity of this morning’s emergency event, an area known as the 200 East Area, have been released from work early. All non-essential personnel north of the Wye Barricade have now been released from work early. Workers on swing shift at the Hanford Site who are not needed for essential site operations this evening are being told not to come into work tonight, as officials determine how to address a partial cave-in of a tunnel near a facility in the center of the site that was discovered this morning. Workers considered essential for site operations are being told to report to work while avoiding the area of the emergency.

UPDATE FROM HANFORD: 11:59 AM, Tuesday, May 9th

An alert was declared at the Hanford Site this morning at approximately 8:30 AM. An alert is the lowest level of emergency classification and is declared when an event is not expected to affect personnel outside of the facility boundary. Later this morning, the alert was expanded to a Site Area Emergency. A Site Area Emergency is declared when the event is affecting or could potentially affect personnel beyond the facility boundary but not beyond the boundary of the Hanford Site.

UPDATE FROM HANFORD: 11:13 AM, Tuesday, May 9th

Crews are currently surveying the area near the PUREX tunnels for contamination. Crews are using hand surveying techniques in the outer areas around the PUREX facility. At and near the area of subsidence crews have deployed a TALON, which is a remote operated surveying device that is capable of radiological and industrial hygiene monitoring as well as capturing video footage. The TALON device allows crews to safely survey potential areas of contamination from a distance of up to ½ mile.


UPDATE FROM HANFORD: 10:54 AM, Tuesday, May 9th

Responders are on the scene and are reporting the soil has subsided in an area approximately 20 feet by 20 feet over one of the tunnels next to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, also known as PUREX. There is no indication of a release of contamination at this point. Responders are getting closer to the area where the soil has subsided for further visual inspection. The subsidence of soil was discovered during a routine surveillance of the area by workers. The tunnels are hundreds of feet long, with approximately eight feet of soil covering them. The depth of the subsidence of soil appears to be into the tunnel.

The tunnels to the PUREX facility are located to the east of the facility, extending south. There are two tunnels, one is approximately 360 feet long and the other is approximately 1,700 feet long. The tunnels were used beginning in the 1950s to store contaminated equipment. The 20 foot wide by 20 foot long cave-in is in an area where the two tunnels join together.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: 

Tuesday morning employees at the Hanford Nuclear Site were told to "take-cover" due to the possibility that radioactive particles may have been released into the air following the collapse of some soil above a tunnel that contains radioactive material.

Whether or not an area of the tunnel has actually collapsed has been hard to determine. A media contact that we spoke with on the phone told us verbatim, "we can confirm that there was no tunnel collapse. That there was no evidence of any sort of release or contamination. That the public is safe and that there was no reports of any injuries."

However, the latest update on the Hanford Emergency Information page states, "The depth of the subsidence [collapse] of soil appears to be into the tunnel." That statement of course, contradicts what the Hanford media contact told us and indicates that the collapse is in fact into the tunnel. 

This is the latest update from the Hanford Emergency Information page in full: 

09 May 2017 10:13 AM 
--Latest Information

"Responders are on the scene and are reporting the soil has subsided in an area approximately 20 feet by 20 feet over one of the tunnels next to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, also known as PUREX. There is no indication of a release of contamination at this point. Responders are getting closer to the area where the soil has subsided for further visual inspection. The subsidence of [collapsed] soil was discovered during a routine surveillance of the area by workers. The tunnels are hundreds of feet long, with approximately eight feet of soil covering them. The depth of the subsidence of soil appears to be into the tunnel."


The emergency alert was declared at 8:26 a.m. near the PUREX (Plutonium Uranium Extracation Plant) Facility. According to Hanford's website, the PUREX facility is "longer than three football fields, stands 64 feet above the ground, and extends another 40 feet below ground. Concrete walls up to six feet thick were used in the plant to shield workers from the radiation of the building. PUREX also contains more than thirty-three miles of piping."

While authorities continue to investigate this incident, the main concern is that the radioactive material inside the tunnels could be released into the air. However, as of 10:13 a.m., Hanford says there is "no indication of a release of contamination at this point."

Actions taken to protect on-site employees include: 

  • Facility personnel have been evacuated
  • As a precaution, workers in potentially affected areas of the Hanford Site have gone indoors
  • Access to the 200 East Area of the Hanford Site, which is located in the center of the Hanford Site, has been restricted to protect employees

This is a developing story, we will update this story as soon as we get more information. 

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