Emergency declared at Hanford nuclear site in Washington state

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A major nuclear power and nuclear science facility near Hanford, Washington is now in the midst of a declared emergency, following the collapse Monday morning of a tunnel leading to a plutonium "finishing plant".

Soil collapsed over a 20-foot square section of a tunnel housing contaminated material at Hanford - a former nuclear weapons production site in the south-central part of the state, about 45 miles from Yakima.

"This is a serious situation, and ensuring the safety of the workers and the community is the top priority", said Wash.

By early afternoon, eating and drinking were allowed, and some workers were being authorized to leave - but the areas closest to the tunnel remained in lockdown.

As a precaution, workers in "potentially affected" areas have gone indoors, and access to the 200 East Area of the Hanford Site, which is located in the center of the site, has been restricted to protect employees. "There is no detected contamination or [radiation] release at this time".

Hundreds of workers were told to go into a "take cover" position after the tunnel in a plutonium uranium extraction (PUREX) plant collapsed.

A source told King 5 that the vibration created by nearby roadwork crews could have caused the incident.

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The 500-square mile Hanford reservation was established by the Manhattan Project during World War II to make plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.

Officials detected no release of radiation and say there were no workers inside the tunnel.

Pallone said the Energy Department should provide details on the implications of the incident on continuing cleanup efforts.

Hours after authorities scrambled to respond, authorities determined there is no initial evidence that workers have been exposed to radiation or that there has been an "airborne radiological release".

The U.S. established Hanford in the 1940s, and today it is considered the most toxic place in the United States, with a local contractor undertaking a $110 billion clean-up of the 56 million gallons of chemical and nuclear waste still at the facility, NBC reported a year ago.

The senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said he is requesting that the Energy Department brief the committee on the root cause of the collapse. Hanford made the plutonium for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and much of the plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The last reactor shut down in 1987, shortly before the mammoth cleanup effort began.