By Lindsey Bever and Steven Mufson
Hundreds of workers at the Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington state have been ordered to “take cover” after a tunnel collapse, according to local news sources.
The U.S. Department of Energy said it has activated its emergency operations protocol in Hanford, a small agricultural community in south-central Washington, about 200 miles from Seattle. It came after an alert at the 200 East Area, which is home to numerous solid waste sites.
Energy Department officials in Hanford said in a statement, “There are concerns about subsidence in the soil covering railroad tunnels near a former chemical processing facility. The tunnels contain contaminated materials.”
Cleaning up radioactive materials at the Hanford site, a federal facility, has been one of the Energy Department’s priorities for years. Reactors located at Hanford produced plutonium for America’s defense program and uranium metal fuel for commercial reactors. Plutonium production ended in 1980 and the cleanup program began in 1989.
Former Energy Department official Bob Alvarez said that the rail cars carry spent fuel from a reactor area along the river to the chemical processing facility, which then extracts dangerous plutonium and uranium. He said the plant lies near the middle of the Hanford site and was “a very high hazard operation.”
Workers were told to evacuate and, “as a precaution, workers in potentially affected areas of the Hanford Site have gone indoors,” according to the statement. “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.”
An unnamed source told NBC affiliate KING workers may have created a vibration that caused a nearby tunnel filled with highly contaminated material to collapse.
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