Thousands of workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation had to take cover on Tuesday when a tunnel containing radioactive waste collapsed, local and national US newspapers reported. Workers discovered the cave-in during routine surveillance.
The Hanford site sprawls over 586 square miles in south-central Washington State, where it was used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons from World War II until the 1980s. Still heavily contaminated with radioactive material and hazardous chemical waste, it is located close to the mighty Columbia River, which downstream divides Washington from Oregon.
The Energy Department, which owns the Hanford site and is responsible for its cleanup, issued a statement following the tunnel collapse and area evacuation, saying that there was “no initial indication of any worker exposure or an airborne radiological release.”
Hanford is widely considered the most contaminated former nuclear site in the Western Hemisphere. In 1989 the Energy Department signed an agreement to clean it up over 30 years, but later conceded that the effort could take 70 years, as Ken Niles wrote in The Bulletin in 2015, in the story “The Hanford cleanup: What’s taking so long?” Jeff Terry, a Bulletin columnist, called out the Energy Department on Twitter just after news of the cave-in, writing, “it really is time to clean up Hanford. You need to invest in facilities. Can’t let them get to the point of collapse.”
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