Tunnel with nuclear waste collapses 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".

In a statement, the Department of Energy said that "everyone has been accounted for and there is no initial indication of any worker exposure or an airborne radiological release". "Responders are getting closer to the area where the soil has subsided for further visual inspection". "There is no detected contamination or [radiation] release at this time".

The cave-in occurred near the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility, also known as PUREX, located in the middle of the sprawling Hanford site, which is 1500 square kilometres in size.

Lori A.in the Hanford site Emergency Information office said that approximately 3,000 employees are now affected by the "take cover" order, which was initiated starting at about 8:30 this morning.

There had been a shelter-in-place directive for 3,000 workers at the entire Hanford Site, but that was lifted for most of the area hours later.

At the same time, crews in the outer areas around the PUREX facility are using hand-surveying techniques to scan for contamination. Some were ordered to evacuate immediately while others were told to shelter-in-place as officials investigated the situation.

The TALON system allows crews to safely monitor the scene from up to half a mile away, the site says.

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The collapse was spotted by workers doing routine surveillance.

"The roof had caved in, about a 20-foot section of that tunnel, which is about a hundred feet long", he said. The depth of the collapse appears to be 2 to 4 feet deep.

The Department of Energy describes Hanford as its most challenging nuclear cleanup site. The unsafe plutonium and uranium is then extracted.

Worker safety has always been a concern at Hanford. The tunnel in question may itself contain items that were used when the plant was operating and which remain contaminated.

"No action is now required for residents of Benton and Franklin counties", the Energy Department said, referring to the almost 300,000 residents near the site about 200 miles southeast of Seattle.

The PUREX building is the length of three football fields and was used to recover plutonium from irradiated fuel rods.

Officials detected no release of radiation and no workers were injured, said Randy Bradbury, a spokesman for the Washington state Department of Ecology.