Emergency officials continue to monitor collapsed tunnel at Hanford Site
RICHLAND, Wash. – Workers at the Department of Energy’s Hanford Site had to “take shelter” Tuesday morning after the collapse of a 20-foot-long portion of a tunnel used to store contaminated radioactive materials.
Officials are still investigating exactly what happened and how the tunnel collapsed.
Hanford officials are meeting at the Federal Building in Richland to assess the hazard.
The spokesperson for the Hanford’s Emergency Operations Center, Destry Henderson, said all employees are safe and accounted for.
However, the emergency continues to be a fluid situation.
Around 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, crews responded to reports of a collapsed tunnel used to store highly contaminated materials at 200 East Hanford.
This tunnel leads directly to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, also known as PUREX.
This facility is located right in the center of the Hanford site and is restricted to all employees for protection purposes.
At this time, officials said there is no indication of a release of contamination from the PUREX tunnel.
However, it is known to contain hazardous materials, so this collapse Tuesday launched an emergency at the site.
The collapse initially prompted an “Alert,” the lowest level of emergency classification. An alert is declared when an event is not expected to affect personnel outside of the facility boundary.
However, the alert expanded to a "Site Area Emergency," meaning it could be a much larger and dangerous event. A Site Area Emergency is declared when the event is affecting or could potentially affect personnel beyond the facility boundary, but not beyond the boundary of the Hanford Site.
At that time, first responders realized the extent of the cave in, now thought to be a 20 x 20-foot hole in the roof of the tunnel.
Handford Emergency Spokesperson Destry Henderson said nonessential employees nearby the site were immediately evacuated, while the 3,000 employees on the site were directed to take shelter as a precaution.
By late Tuesday afternoon, all nonessential employees were released from work early.
Henderson said there are no injuries or evidence of a radiological release.
"Our fundamental concern is employee safety, and in a situation like this, first responders don't rush into a situation,” he said. “They work their way in slowly, surveying for contamination, determining if there's contamination as they approach the area.”
Henderson said first responders are in the process of surveying the scene for signs of radioactive material, a procedure that could take a while.
"Emergency responders use a variety of tools to measure radiological contamination, hand-held and air borne,” he said.
Again, there’s no signs of contamination at this time, but Henderson explained that crews are taking full precautionary measures.
"Personal responders are dressed in personal protective gear and it just depends on what is discovered," he added.
Henderson said these emergency situations take time to figure out, but their first step was to ensure employee and environmental safety.
"Now we're trying to figure out what exactly the situation is with the tunnel itself," he said.
Henderson said the emergency only affects personnel on site.
"A good rule of thumb is to be prepared for any emergency, but as of now there's no actions the public needs to take," he said.
He went on to say that it’s too soon to determine why or how this collapse happened. First responders are still assessing the severity of the scene.
Henderson said Hanford officials will continue to monitor the site for the foreseeable future as they develop recovery plans.
We will continue to follow and update this story as officials release more information.
For continuous updates on the situation, go to www.hanford.gov.