US nuclear site’s collapsed tunnel ‘goes unnoticed’

Dhaka,  Thu,  29 June 2017
Published : 12 May 2017, 21:29:16
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US nuclear site’s collapsed tunnel ‘goes unnoticed’

SPOKANE, May 12 (AP): The large sinkhole that caved in a tunnel filled with radioactive waste at a sprawling Washington state nuclear waste repository may have gone unnoticed for days before its discovery because workers do not patrol tunnel sites daily, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy said Thursday.

The sinkhole was found Tuesday, prompting an emergency at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation with evacuations of some workers and orders for others to stay inside buildings scattered across the 500 square-mile (1,300 square-kilometer) safekeeping location for radioactive waste dating from World War II.

Authorities plan to investigate why and when the roof of the tunnel suffered a partial cave-in, creating the sinkhole that poured dirt into the tunnel containing railroad cars with nuclear waste, the agency said.

The cave-in could have happened as many as four days before its discovery Tuesday morning, said energy department spokesman Mark Heeter.

"We don't know exactly when it occurred," Heeter said.

No one was hurt and no radiation escaped into the environment before the sinkhole was filled in with 54 truckloads of soil late Wednesday night, the Energy Department said.

The 8 feet (2.4 meters) of dirt that fell into the tunnel after its roof partially collapsed may have prevented radiation from escaping into the environment, Heeter said.

But Washington state officials were taken aback upon learning after the collapse that tunnel inspections were made on what they called an infrequent basis.

"It's not acceptable that the hole could have been open for four days," said Alex Smith, nuclear waste manager for the Washington state Department of Ecology, which helps regulate the Hanford site.

Smith said that radioactivity would have been detected immediately by monitoring devices if it had escaped from the tunnel into the air.

The 360-foot long (110-meter) rail tunnel was built in 1956 from timber, concrete and steel. Eight flatbed railroad cars loaded with radioactive material were parked inside when the entrance was sealed in 1965.

The waste came from a nearby factory where between plutonium was extracted from 1956 to 1988 from spent nuclear fuel rods as part of the process to make nuclear weapons.

Smith said the tunnel contains about 780 cubic yards (596 cubic meters) of waste - a mixture of radioactive and chemical waste and irradiated equipment, including the contaminated rail cars used to haul the fuel rods.

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the filling of the hole "was accomplished swiftly and safely to help prevent any further complications."

"Our next step is to identify and implement longer-term measures to further reduce risks," Perry said.
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