Early Tuesday morning, an emergency was declared at The Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant at Hanford in Washington State after a tunnel containing radioactive material reportedly collapsed. The facility’s 3,000 employees on site have been told to shelter in place and avoid eating or drinking anything as the plant remains on lockdown.
The tunnel was connected to a plutonium uranium extraction (PUREX) complex, which handles about 65% of the plutonium processed from irradiated fuel rods at Hanford. It is unclear how much radioactive material was present in the tunnel at the time of the emergency.
Officials are still trying to determine what exactly what went wrong.
“There is no confirmation of a tunnel collapse,” a Hanford Site spokesperson told Motherboard. “What we saw that caused us to declare the emergency was a small area of sunken soil that covered the tunnel in question. There is no evidence of a radioactive release or contamination. All staff are accounted for and right now we have the Hanford Fire Department on standby.”
The incident may have resulted from nearby construction work.
The Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant at Hanford
Hanford was established in 1943 to process nuclear materials for the top-secret Manhattan Project. The plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb tested at Trinity in New Mexico, as well as in Fat Man, the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki in 1945.
The production of plutonium at Hanford ended in the 1980s, and in 1989, an agreement was struck between the DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency to totally demolish the site. As the DOE writes on its website, “nowhere in the DOE complex is cleanup more challenging than at the Hanford Site,” which partly has to do with the “hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste…generated during the plutonium production days.”
Hanford has a long history of poor disposal efforts that led to unintentional spills. Today, the plant has been tagged with the informal monkiers as the “most toxic place in America” and “America’s Chernobyl.”