The state of Washington hit the federal government with a legal order Wednesday evening as Hanford crews worked to fill a breach in a tunnel containing highly radioactive waste.
“It appears the situation is largely stabilized,” said Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee earlier Wednesday. “But I am extremely concerned about what happened yesterday and how the Department of Energy can give us confidence that this will not happen again.”
No airborne radioactive contamination has been detected from the breach by either federal or state monitors. Piling a sand mixture into the breach should further prevent radioactive materials from reaching the atmosphere, according to DOE.
Hanford workers spent Tuesday night building a gravel road and staging area to bring in heavy equipment near the partially collapsed PUREX plant tunnel in the center of the 580-square-mile nuclear reservation.
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By 5:30 p.m. about 43 truckloads of sand mixed with soil had been dropped into the hole. Work was expected to continue through the evening until about 50 total truckloads of the mixture were emptied.
It appears the situation is largely stabilized. But I am extremely concerned about what happened yesterday and how the Department of Energy can give us confidence that this will not happen again.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
The Washington State Department of Ecology, a Hanford regulator, released an administrative order shortly after the close of business Wednesday, ordering DOE to take immediate steps to ensure the safety of workers, the public and the environment.
“This alarming emergency compels us to take immediate action — to hold the federal government accountable to clean up the largest nuclear waste site in the country,” said Maia Bellon, the state Department of Ecology director.
The state order said that three actions were considered by Hanford officials.
Filling the hole was picked as the best option over covering the breach with a tarp or building a structure over the breach as an initial protective action, according to the state order. It did not indicate the reasoning behind the decision.
The order, which DOE is allowed to appeal, has three deadlines.
It must immediately determine the cause of the breach and assess whether there is an immediate risk of failure of the waste storage tunnel or of the second longer tunnel. A structural integrity review of both tunnels is due July 1.
This alarming emergency compels us to take immediate action — to hold the federal government accountable to clean up the largest nuclear waste site in the country.
Maia Bellon, state Department of Ecology
“The infrastructure built to temporarily store radioactive waste is now more than a half-century old,” Bellon said, referring to the tunnels. “The tunnel collapse is direct evidence that it is failing.”
DOE also must start immediately developing a plan of corrections to ensure the safe storage of waste in both tunnels. A draft of the plan is due Aug. 1.
By Oct. 1 it must propose modifications to an existing dangerous waste permit for the tunnels, which would include a plan for permanently cleaning up the waste in the tunnels.
The tunnel that partially collapsed was about 360 feet long and built of creosoted timbers and some concrete. Since the ’60s it has stored eight railcars holding 780 cubic yards of contaminated equipment. Doors to the tunnel were sealed in the ’90s.
According to the state, a study prepared by a past Hanford contractor in 1991 concluded that the wood would lose strength because of radiation from the waste within the tunnel. It estimated that the timber would have about 60 percent of its original strength in 2001.
It recommended a study of the structural integrity of the wood in 2001, but it is not clear if that was done.
A study required by a past Hanford contractor in 1991 concluded that the wood in one tunnel would lose strength because of radiation. It estimated that the timbers would have about 60 percent of their original strength in 2001.
Under deadlines revised last year in the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement, DOE is required to start some work toward assessing the condition of the PUREX tunnels by September 2017.
There is no deadline specifically for the tunnel cleanup beyond a general requirement for cleanup of processing facilities in central Hanford by 2042.
The state enforcement order will help emphasize the need for adequate federal funding for Hanford, amidst talk of federal budget cuts, the governor said.
Environmental cleanup work in central Hanford, including at the PUREX plant, has been delayed because of lack of money.
Although the nuclear reservation receives more than $2 billion annually, the focus in recent years has been on cleanup of contamination closest to the Columbia River and on 56 million gallons of liquid and sludge radioactive and hazardous chemical waste held in aging underground tanks.
The breach continued to receive national attention Wednesday.
“Dedicated experts on the ground are looking closely at what next steps should be taken with respect to mitigating future tunnel breaches,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee has requested a briefing on the situation, said committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore. The committee needs to understand the circumstances that contributed to the tunnel cave-in and concerns related to operations at Hanford, he said.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry was receiving regular updates, according to his staff. He told the Associated Press as he toured the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, that the nation can no longer delay cleaning up nuclear waste in a timely manner.
Although the Hanford reservation receives more than $2 billion annually, the focus in recent years has been on cleanup of contamination closest to the Columbia River and on 56 million gallons of radioactive waste.
About 9 a.m. Wednesday, the first scoops of clean sand and soil were dropped into the collapsed portion of the Hanford tunnel.
The mixture being used to stabilize the breach was mostly sand and some soil. Sand was picked as a fill material for its density, according to DOE.
The excavator operator and some nearby workers were wearing protective clothing and air purifying respirators.
Employees planned to work slowly and methodically, according to DOE.
Once the collapsed area of the tunnel is filled, Hanford officials will determine what additional actions need to be taken, according to DOE.
No radioactive “shine” had been measured from the breach, according to DOE. Monitoring showed radiation at normal background levels.
The soil falling into the hole at the top of the tunnel would have helped contain any radiation or release of any radioactive material into the air, according to DOE.
Dedicated experts on the ground are looking closely at what next steps should be taken with respect to mitigating future tunnel breaches.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders
Hanford officials have been able to look at video shot looking into the hole and could mostly see the soil that had fallen into it. The tunnel was covered with eight feet of soil.
The hole is over the portion of the oldest tunnel near where it joins to a second tunnel. The second tunnel was built nearly parallel to the first after the initial tunnel started to fill with radioactive debris.
The cause of the collapse is still not known.
The Hanford area periodically gets swarms of shallow earthquakes — including 300 small quakes with magnitude 2.9 or lower in early 2009 — but no earthquake activity has been detected in recent days, according to DOE.
A formal investigation had not been launched Wednesday morning because the focus remained on stabilizing the breach, according to a DOE spokesman.
Most on-site work at the nuclear reservation was canceled Wednesday, including day, swing and night shifts, with workers north of the Wye Barricade who were not needed for security or safety activities told to stay home.
No determination had been made Wednesday evening about whether most workers would return to areas north of the Wye Barricade on Thursday.
The Federal Aviation Administration closed air space above central Hanford on Tuesday and extended the closure until 5 p.m. Thursday.