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Cantwell, Hanford officials explain steps they're taking to avoid another tunnel collapse

Truckloads of sand and soil have been used to fill the collapsed tunnel at Hanford storing equipment with high levels of radioactive contamination. The tunnel is expected to be covered with durable plastic protectant in the coming week. (Courtesy DOE)

RICHLAND, Wash. – On Saturday, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell visited the PUREX facility at Hanford where the tunnel holding radioactive material recently collapsed.

Following the senator's briefing on the situation, Action News heard from Cantwell, Hanford officials, and leaders from the Department of Ecology about how they plan to prevent another cave-in.

IMMEDIATE CONCERNS

Hanford Officials say the 400-square-foot collapse of a tunnel containing hazardous materials on Tuesday sounded an alarm, bringing attention to the aging infrastructure of the tunnels at the PUREX facility.

"Now there is still the potential that we could have an additional collapse," said Doug Shoop, site manager for the Department of Energy Richland Operations.

Hanford Spokesperson Mark Heeter said the cause for the collapse is still unknown, but it could have been caused from a multitude of things, such as aging infrastructure, radiation, deterioration, moisture, or extra snowfall this winter.

Nuclear Waste Program Manager Alex Smith said the Department of Ecology issued an order on the tunnel collapse, requiring the DOE to take certain steps to ensure its short-term and long-term stability.

Ecology's Nuclear Waste Program focuses on keeping people and the environment safe from the dangers of mixed radioactive and chemically hazardous waste by enforcing regulatory compliance and cleanup at the Hanford Site.

Smith said Ecology has multiple concerns at the Hanford Site. The most immediate concern, of course, is the potential the wooden tunnel could collapse again.

Smith said the biggest frustration is that there isn’t enough funding from Congress to finish the cleanup.

“I’m astonished that they don’t fund everything to do the cleanup because by not doing the cleanup, it only degrades further,” she said.

She said concerns were brought up with the tunnels back in the 80's and 90's, but the DOE never received the funding to address it.

“The integrity of the structure is compromised,” Smith said. “I hope it’s a wake-up call for Congress that they can’t let the site's infrastructure deteriorate any longer.”

If a larger part of the tunnel were to collapse, she said they worry about a radiological release.

“Radioactive dirt and dust could be released into the air, and with the proximity to the river it is a high concern,” Smith explained.

With high winds in the area, Smith said radioactive dust can travel easily, that’s why they used extra precaution when dealing with the emergency on Tuesday.

Shoop explained that there are different types of radiation, and they want to avoid airborne release of radioactive dust because the materials are difficult to contain and can be harmful to humans if they are inhaled or swallowed.

WHAT’S NEXT

Shoop said now that the hole has been filled with some 53 truckloads of sand and soil, in the coming days Hanford workers will cover the entirety of the 350-foot tunnel with a durable plastic protectant, which will be secured by large cement blocks. This is the temporary fix, as they work in the coming weeks to find a more long-term solution to stabilizing the tunnel.

Senator Maria Cantwell visited the PUREX facility Saturday morning to learn more about the situation.

She said she's thankful that no one was hurt during the emergency and that there's no immediate harm the environment.

"But this is a harsh reminder that we need to stay on top of all our efforts at Hanford and the Hanford cleanup," she said.

Federal funding of the DOE remains critical to filling the government's legal obligations at the Hanford Site, Cantwell said.

"I stand ready to help in whatever ways we can federally, to make sure the DOE is helped to provide the support both near-term and long-term actions that need to happen," she added.

To date, the DOE said they have not detected a radiological release from the partially collapsed tunnel.

Hanford Spokesperson Mark Heeter said their top priority remains worker and environmental safety.

“And everything ripples out from there,” Heeter added.

Shoop explained that the tunnel that collapsed is made from wood and was built back in the 1950's.

The purpose of the tunnels was to receive equipment from the PUREX Facility that were no longer needed or contaminated. He said they didn’t’ have a good way of exposing hazardous things at that time, so they built the tunnels with rail road tracks down the center and placed the radioactive materials on flatbed rail cars.

While the DOE does have fairly detailed account of the site, Shoop said they must the rely on records from decades ago that describes what kind of materials lie inside.

"But what we do know for sure is that the material is very radioactive,” he said. “And though this material is considered ‘hot’ it doesn’t necessarily mean it released radiation in a dust form."

Shoop said the hazardous nature of the situation is a daunting challenge, but Hanford officials will work aggressively on their plan of action to prevent another cave-in.

Senator Cantwell said she's here and ready to help.

"We stand ready," She stated. "That the federal government is there on a plan of action and that this gets the kind of attention we need."

Shoop said all the monitoring data that the DOE, contractors and the Department of Health conducted on the site, following the collapse, will be available to the public within the next week.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Because of the alarming visuals of the tunnel collapse, paired with the phrase “radiological release,” the news quickly echoed around the national media.

And while the short-term immediate concern is the tunnels at the PUREX facility, it is not the most dangerous site at Hanford.

Smith said long-term concerns remain to be the giant, underground tank farms, filled with 53 million gallons of radioactive sludge.

Over the years, 67 of the 177 tanks have collectively leaked a million gallons—a slow-motion infrastructure collapse that doesn’t lend itself to dramatic photos or headlines.

“Ground water is 225 feet down,” Smith said. “But radioactive sludge is still making its way.”

While about 61 square miles of Hanford’s groundwater are contaminated above drinking water standards, currently no one uses that water.

The DOE isn’t given adequate funding to finish the cleanup, but still must maintain the site, which costs money.

The more money that is spent to maintain the site, the less money there is to do the clean up, Smith said.

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