The U.S. Department of Energy issued an emergency alert Tuesday morning at the Hanford Site north of Richland, Washington after the discovery of a “small sunken area of soil” that covers a tunnel at the former chemical processing plant.
Officials were concerned about contamination in soil covering railroad tunnels near the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant cleanup site. The tunnels contain contaminated materials.
Some workers at the plant have been evacuated and about 3,000 others near the area at the center of the Hanford Site were directed to take shelter indoors.
A representative at the Hanford Emergency Operations Center who would not give her name said there were no injuries reported.
”There is no indication of a release of contamination at this point,” said a subsequent statement on the Hanford Emergency Information website.
The Hanford site announced in a tweet it would go live on Facebook with more information Tuesday afternoon.
The plant, also known by its acronym PUREX, was used during the Cold War to chemically extract plutonium from irradiated fuel rods for use in nuclear weapons. Hanford, which sits next to the Columbia River, was one of the original Manhattan Project sites. Its nine nuclear reactors irradiated uranium fuel rods. That created plutonium, which was extracted with chemicals, processed and shipped to weapons factories. Each step produced radioactive waste. Hanford is the nation’s largest nuclear cleanup site, with 56 million gallons of radioactive waste sitting in old, leaky underground tanks.
A spokesman for the Washington Emergency Management Division said the state Emergency Operations Center has been activated and is monitoring the situation. The Oregon Department of Energy, which is responsible for radiological safety, activated its emergency operations center as well.
The area is not open to the general public. A statement on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford Emergency Information website said that civilians in surrounding Benton and Franklin counties did not need to take any precautionary actions.
OPB produced this explainer on the nuclear waste cleanup at the Hanford site:
Hanford is the nation’s largest nuclear cleanup site, with 56 million gallons of radioactive waste sitting in old, leaky underground tanks just a few hours upriver from Portland. There’s a plan to clean It all up. But after more than 20 years and $19 billion dollars, not a drop of waste has been treated.