Photo credit: AP

The Hanford Site is a mostly decommissioned complex that produced plutonium for most of the weapons in the United States nuclear arsenal, including the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. It’s also the most contaminated nuclear site in the entire country. A tunnel just collapsed there, and a state of emergency has reportedly been declared.

From the Hanford Site itself:

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Richland Operations Office activated the Hanford Emergency Operations Center at 8:26 a.m., after an alert was declared at the 200 East Area. There are concerns about subsidence in the soil covering railroad tunnels near a former chemical processing facility. The tunnels contain contaminated materials.

Actions taken to protect 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

A spokesperson at the Hanford site told us that there was no immediate evidence of a radiation release, and a “take cover” order simply entails having people run into the nearest building, be it an office or something else. “Take covers” have been declared in the past, the spokesperson said.

But it sounds like this was a bit more dramatic than the official word:

Susannah Frame, the investigative reporter for local KING television news, went on to say that the tunnel that collapsed contained “highly contaminated” materials, such as the now-radioactive trains that were used to transport nuclear fuel rods.

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The last nuclear reactor at Hanford shut down in 1987, and since then it’s been the focus of a massive federal cleanup effort by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and others. It’s had its fair share of safety issues, and in 2014, OSHA had to step-in and reinstate a worker who blew the whistle on some of the dangers there. That same year, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson noted a litany of complaints, local news organization KATU reported:

During the past couple of decades, tanks workers have reported “nosebleeds, headaches, watery eyes, burning skin, contact dermatitis, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, coughing, sore throats, expectorating, dizziness and nausea,” Ferguson said. “Several of these workers have long-term disabilities.”

The report issued last month concluded that the methods used to study the vapor releases were inadequate, and the methods did not account for short but intense releases of vapors from the tanks. The report was prepared by a team of experts led by the Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory.

There are also guided tours.

More as we have it.

UPDATE 1:25 PM EST: From the Hanford Site:

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.