A twenty-foot-long portion of a tunnel containing highly radioactive train cars and other equipment has collapsed at the Hanford Nuclear Site. A state of emergency was declared by Department of Energy Hanford officials on May 9, 2017.
The collapsed tunnel, referred to as “Tunnel #1,” was built in 1956 and contains train cars filled with highly radioactively contaminated equipment, dust, debris, surfaces, and glove boxes containing plutonium and oxide dust.
I Take the Hanford Tunnel Collapse Personally
As in so many Hanford cases, for so very long, this frightening event was predictable, and predictions seem to have been ignored.
The tunnel collapse supports what critics have argued for years, that radioactive waste from the Cold War are being stored on the Hanford sitein haphazard and unsafe conditions, and that time is running out to effectively and safely deal with the problem.
A risk review completed in 2015, commissioned by the Department of Energy and conducted by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of Vanderbilt University, pointed out the risks posed by the tunnels. The following detailed information about the tunnels and their dangerous contents comes from that review.
Some Hanford Tunnel History
During the Cold War, a rail tunnel was used to bring irradiated slugs by remotely controlled railway trains from Hanford’s nine plutonium production reactors to the PUREX building on the Hanford site. PUREX, built between 1953 and 1955, was a facility that processed nuclear fuel, chemically separating plutonium, uranium, and neptunium from Hanford’s irradiated nuclear fuel elements. The plutonium produced in this manner at Hanford was used in the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki in July of 1945. Hanford continued to produce plutonium throughout the Cold War as part of the US effort to build up its nuclear weapons stockpiles.
To dispose of large pieces of radioactive solid waste from chemical processing of irradiated nuclear fuel at PUREX, a 500 foot extension was built onto the rail tunnel. The tunnel’s rectangular walls and ceiling were mainly built of 12” by 14” creosoted timbers, with the 12 inch face exposed. The timbers sit on concrete footings.
Between June 1960 and January 1965, 8 railcars containing highly radioactively contaminated equipment and surfaces, dust, debris, and approximately 20,000 curies of plutonium and oxide dust stabilized within gloveboxes, was pushed by remote controlled electric engine into Tunnel #1.
In 1964, Tunnel #2, a 1700 foot tunnel, was built to provide further storage space for 40 railcars after Tunnel #1 had become full, and was sealed. Tunnel #2 had semicircular walls supported by internal steel i-beams attached to three foot thick reinforced concrete arches. The interior of the tunnel is coated with a steel liner. Tunnel #2 currently houses 28 railcars of highly radioactively contaminated equipment.
The two tunnels together contain more than 400,000 curies of Cs-137, Sr-90, as well as about 7200 curies of Pu.
According to the Vanderbilt report, a number of events could result in total structural failure of the tunnels, causing significant releases of radiation to the environment. Earthquakes, fires, partial building collapse, a crane drop, waste handling accidents, and explosions are included in this list.
The wood ceiling and wall structure of Tunnel #1, which is the tunnel that collapsed, are particularly vulnerable to fire or collapse due to the deterioration of the wooden walls from continued exposure to gamma radiation from the contaminated equipment stored in the tunnel. According to the Vanderbilt Hanford risk assessment, collapse of Tunnel #1 “…could release a large fraction of the 21,200 curie radiological inventory to the environment.”
Former Department of Energy official Robert Alvarez said of the tunnels: “…the tunnels now store contaminated train cars and a considerable amount of highly radioactive, ignitable wastes including possible organic vapors”.
According to Gerry Pollet, a Washington State legislator and long-time Hanford critic, the collapse of a waste storage tunnel at Hanford had been feared for years. “This disaster was predicted and shows the Federal Energy Department’s utter recklessness in seeking decades of delay for Hanford cleanup.”
Hanford Collapse Dangerous or Not? A Warning
The Department of Energy, Hanford, claims that there is no evidence that workers have been exposed to radiation or that there has been any release of airborne radiation following the May 9 tunnel collapse.
As a “Hanford Downwinder”- a person exposed to Hanford’s decades of covert release of airborne and riverborne radiation onto unsuspecting populations downwind, I have heard these reassurances from the Department of Energy, and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, that “all is well” at Hanford many times before.
I learned the hard way that these reassurances may cover up the truth.
As the Hanford site and its haphazard waste storage tunnels, tanks, and burial pits age and fester in the desert of Eastern Washington, I think it is high time to pay attention to the warnings contained in the Vanderbilt risk survey.
The longer these highly radioactive wastes remain in their fragile, temporary storage containers, whether those containers are aging tanks or deteriorating tunnels, the more risk to workers and the public from catastrophic airborne radiological release.
Hanford and the downwind communities escaped disaster this time. Let this be a wake-up call of the highest order.
 N. Geranios & M. Valdes, “Tunnel Collapse at Washington State nuclear site renews safety concerns,” Associated Press, May 10, 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-tunnel-collapses-nuclear-waste-site-20170509-story.html
 “Hanford Site-Wide Risk Review Project Interim Progress Report”, August 31, 2015, Vanderbilt University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: www.cresp.org/Hanford/Hanford_Risk_Review_Interim%20Report_Rev_0.pdf
 Vanderbilt Hanford Risk Assessment, at page 228.
 L Bever, S Mufson, “Tunnel Collapses at Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington State,” The Washington Post, May 9, 2017.
 N. Geranios, M Valdes, “Tunnel Collapse at Washington State nuclear site renews safety concerns, Associated Press, May 10, 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-tunnel-collapses-nuclear-waste-site-20170509-story.html
 C Hassan, et al, “No radiation reports after tunnel collapse at Hanford nuclear site,” CNN, May 10, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/09/us/hanford-nuclear-site-tunnels-contamination/