Tunnel Collapse at Hanford

A tunnel collapsed in the 200 Area of Washington State’s Hanford Reservation. The 200 Area is where fuel elements from Hanford’s reactors were processed to recover the plutonium that went into American nuclear weapons. I was not aware of an underground rail system there. The system is probably in the 200 area only because the reactors are much too far away to make an underground system possible.

The trains apparently transported the fuel rods to the processing plant, the long building shown in the photo. Update: I am guessing that the fuel rods were partially removed from the casks in which they would have been transported by truck from the reactors. That means that there was slightly more chance for them to have been contaminated.  The rail system extends to the reactors but is in tunnels as it approaches the plant.

Some reports are saying that the trains were full of radioactive waste and are buried in the tunnels. I tend to doubt that. Having worked on DOE cleanups, I have seen exaggerations of this kind, urban legends of the DOE complex. Update: Apparently there are radioactive parts from the processing facility in the cars. This is not the kind of waste that is likely to be mobilized into the air.

The official Hanford site says that the collapse was 20 by 20 feet and there is no indication of a release of contamination. That’s not enough to release significant quantities of anything, unless there is pure plutonium oxide uncontained in the tunnels. (Hint: there isn’t. I don’t know that for a fact, but I would bet large sums of money on that, and I am not a betting person.)

People at the site have been told to take cover in buildings and secure the ventilation systems. This is the reasonable first response.

Looks to me like no big deal. The site bulletins should be updated. I’ll update this post as warranted.

Update: A robot is being deployed to check for contamination.

Best available news article on the collapse.

Update (May 11, 2017): The collapse has been filled in and the emergency status lifted. The fill will make an eventual remediation more difficult, but it should contain the radioactive materials.

Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.

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