Emergency Declared After Tunnel Full Of Nuclear Waste Collapses At Hanford (Updated)

The situation at the highly contaminated site remains murky, but federal assets are likely to respond, which could include a unique radiation-sniffing helicopter.

Radioactive Waste Cleanup Continues At Hanford Nuclear Reservation
Jeff T. Green—Getty Images

Details remain sketchy, but we know there has been a major incident at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. A tunnel full of railcars filled with nuclear waste has collapsed, sending workers at the sprawling installation scurrying to shelter in-place indoors where they were told by officials to secure ventilation and not to drink or eat anything until further notice.

Supposedly, there are no signs of a large radiological release at this time, although that is based on initial reports from Hanford officials. More testing will likely be needed to ascertain the extent of the immediate danger and ongoing risk following the incident. We will have to wait and see if this will include the rapid deployment of unique Department of Energy and Nuclear Security Administration assets that are tasked with dealing with these types of emergencies. 

These assets usually include an Accident Response Group that is on call to jet off at short notice. Also the deployment of a specially configured Bell 412 helicopter, known as the Airborne Measuring System, that is used to map radiological incidents like dirty bombs or industrial accidents, would be something to watch for. These silver helicopters with large pods hanging off their sides, along with their King Air spotting aircraft, are part of the Remote Sensing Lab and are based primarily at Nellis AFB, just outside of Las Vegas.

DOE

A Bell 412 AMS. 

During large-scale disaster training exercises, like those put on by FEMA, these unique Twin Hueys are often seen ripping around the area at low-level. Their presence over urban areas often raises a lot of interest and is usually the source of numerous local conspiracy theories, but really they are just training to execute their high-priority mission. The data they gather would likely save countless lives during an actual disaster 

The sprawling Hanford nuclear site, which is roughly half the size of Rhode Island, has roots dating back to the dawn of the atomic age. It was established during the early 1940s to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project. During the Cold War, Hanford's nine reactors and five processing facilities helped produce enough enriched nuclear material for the US to assemble tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. 

 MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The site also participated in a slew of scientific breakthroughs that added to our understanding physics and nuclear applications. A sad byproduct of these activities was the large-scale contamination of the site, with some 50 million gallons of high-level nuclear and 25 million cubic feet of solid nuclear waste being crudely stored there over the years. This has caused the water beneath the site to be highly contaminated, and the fact that it straddles the Columbia River makes the situation all the more concerning. 

In recent decades, the site's precarious nature has been the source of escalating concerns. With what seems like a never ending string of new contamination events and human health risks identified, some have posited that it is just a matter of time before a major nuclear incident occurs. 

 Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

Nuclear waste transport containers at Hanford.

Today Hanford is by far America's largest nuclear waste site and it is the largest environmental cleanup project in the United States. And although remediation efforts are ongoing, even if the site can be cleaned up over many decades to come—some think it is an impossible task—the massive amount of nuclear waste stored there, even if all of it is transferred to more modern storage containers, will remain a potentially disaster in waiting

We will keep this page updated for the next 24 hours with more information as it comes.

UPDATE 11:55am PST: 

The collapse is said to be associated with Tunnel #2. Some say there is only solid waste stored there but this is not confirmed officially. Here is where the tunnel is located supposedly. Once again, waiting for confirmation on these details. 

The airspace has been closed up to 5,000 feet over and five miles around Hanford.

UPDATE 2:27pm PST: 

As of now, officials claim that no radiation has been released. The collapse occurred near the plutonium uranium extraction (PUREX) plant. A robot has been sent into the area to better assess the environmental factors there. Destry Henderson, the news manager for the Hanford Joint Information Center, told NBC that "I would underscore this is confined to a small area of the Hanford site... The facility does have radiological contamination right now but there is no indication of a radiological release." So at this point it seems that things are relatively contained.  

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com