The Department of Energy said Thursday that most of the 9,000 workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State had been informed they could return to work after a site emergency was declared following the discovery Tuesday morning of a collapsed storage tunnel that contained rail cars loaded with radioactive equipment.
U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced the end of the crisis, but said the next step was to investigate exactly why the tunnel collapsed and to take steps to ensure another collapse would be prevented.
Tuesday's discovery began as a publicity nightmare for the nuclear power industry that does not suffer negative publicity lightly. Popular media outlets putting the words nuclear and accident into the same sentence – or even the same paragraph – is a cause for concern and many prominent media outlets with little information to go on and papers to sell back-filled news of the collapse with lists of major industry mishaps, despite the point that the discovery on Tuesday at first warranted an area alert that did not even concern everyone on the Hanover campus. That was later changed to a site emergency, which put everyone on the campus on alert, but with no leakage of radioactive material – generally released through steam, dust or water – residents of the nearest towns were not even ordered to take extra precautions.
The incident ended with an anti-climatic announcement. Workers at Hanover in protective gear sealed the 400-square foot hole in the tunnel – which lies eight feet under the ground level – with 53 truckloads of clean soil to prevent any more of the tunnel from giving way.
There are two tunnels dug into the hillside at the site, the shorter of which suffered the collapse that ran for about 20 linear feet. The tunnels are adjacent to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction plant, nicknamed PUREX in a part of the campus called 200 East Area.
The DOE said that the area surrounding the collapse would be restricted until further notice, but most workers on the campus were cleared for work as of Thursday.
There are nine nuclear reactors on the premises currently managed by the Richland Operations Office of the DOE. The entire campus is in cleanup and decommissioning mode, as the DOE is dealing with the legacy of the U.S. military's plutonium weapons production that was the Hanover site's primary purpose from 1942 until 1987.
The tunnel with the partial collapse was built in 1956 and sealed in 1965. It is 360-feet long and contains eight flatbed rail cars. The longer tunnel nearby, which is also sealed, holds 28 rail cars.
There was a congressional-level response to the incident. “While there have been no reports of injuries and no indication of a release of contamination, as chairman of the committee I have asked DOE to provide a bipartisan briefing for members and staff of the situation. I am continuing to monitor the situation as the facts develop,” said Greg Walden, chairman of the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee.
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