Tri-City mayors worry about ‘catastrophic’ Hanford tunnel collapse

The radioactive waste tunnels at Hanford’s PUREX

The Hanford nuclear reservation's first PUREX tunnel collapsed in May 2017. Government officials and contractors continue to talk about how to address safeguarding both tunnels against further damage.
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The Hanford nuclear reservation's first PUREX tunnel collapsed in May 2017. Government officials and contractors continue to talk about how to address safeguarding both tunnels against further damage.

Tri-City-area mayors say the public is at risk of a “potentially catastrophic tunnel collapse” if work doesn’t start soon to stabilize a Hanford tunnel storing radioactive waste.

The Department of Energy recently asked the Washington State Department of Ecologyto allow Hanford nuclear reservation workers to fill the longer of the two tunnels with concrete-like grout.

Federal officials requested an answer by July 23 to begin work in August.

Ecology, a regulator at the Hanford nuclear reservation, is legally required to give an answer as soon as it practically can.

Starting work in August would allow most work to be done before the worst of the winter weather makes roads icy, according to federal officials. The project will require 5,000 truckloads of grout.

“What DOE is asking is to take irreversible action — put grout in that tunnel — before the the public process really has a chance to get off the ground,” said Alex Smith, Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program manager.

But many worry about the decaying tunnel and upcoming winter weather.

A video inspection of the inside of the second tunnel shows corrosion of bolts and weld plates.

“It could go another 50 years. It could go another 50 days,” said Doug Shoop, manager of the DOE Richland Operations Office told the Hanford Advisory Board on Tuesday. “I wish I could tell you.”

An unusually wet and snowy winter may have contributed to the partial collapse of the first tunnel. Precipitation-soaked soil on top of the tunnel would have increased the weight on the tunnel’s flat roof made of timbers.

The coming winter also could be unusually wet, Al Farabee, a DOE Hanford project director, told the advisory board this week.

The state is legally required to hold a 45-day public comment period, which it plans to start on Aug. 13, according to the Department of Ecology. Public hearings are planned 5:30 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Richland library and Sept. 5 in Seattle.

The mayors of Kennewick, Richland, Pasco and West Richland sent a letter July 31 to Smith, saying they were frustrated by how long the state was taking to make a decision.

Preparations are underway in central Hanford to place a mobile plant to make batches of grout for stabilizing a tunnel holding 28 rail cars loaded with radioactively contaminated equipment. The Department of Energy needs state approval to begin filling the tunnel. Department of Energy

They criticized the state for holding public meetings, saying DOE already held a public comment period this spring.

The state meetings “could potentially delay, as much as a year, the action recommended by the panel of experts, which will reduce the risk to our region of a potentially catastrophic tunnel collapse,” said the letter from the mayors.

But the state said it could not hold its required public comment period until DOE finished its public process and then provided the state with more information.

The issue stems from the partial collapse in May 2017 of the older of two PUREX plant waste storage tunnels.

Then DOE moved quickly under emergency conditions to stabilize the tunnel, including beginning to fill it with grout within six weeks — public comment requirements were waived because of emergency conditions.

Officials later heard complaints at the Hanford Advisory Board and other meetings that there was no opportunity for public comment.

This video uses animation to show how DOE and contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company would fill waste storage Tunnel 2 near PUREX with grout to prevent a collapse, while allowing for future removal of the waste from the tunnel.

Questions have been raised about how rail cars filled with waste could be removed eventually from a tunnel filled with grout, although DOE says cutting up the grouted waste and removing it should be possible.

The partial collapse of the first tunnel triggered a structural analysis of the second and longer waste storage tunnel, which was built in 1964, eight years after the first.

The analysis found the 1,700-foot tunnel also was at serious risk of collapse.

A panel of experts appointed by DOE determined that grouting the tunnel, which holds 28 rail cars loaded with highly radioactively contaminated equipment, was the best option to prevent a collapse and possible airborne release of radioactive contamination.

Government agencies were working through the public process to reach a decision on grouting the tunnel, when DOE’s concerns increased this spring.

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Metal parts inside a second radioactive waste storage tunnel at Hanford show corrosion that could lead to a collapse, say officials. The tunnel was built in 1964. Department of Energy

Shoop said the construction of the second tunnel, which used steel beams, is a concern because if one beam falls, it could put stress on the next beam, creating a domino failure effect.

DOE said in a public announcement July 16 that it wanted to start stabilizing the tunnel with grout in August but needed state permission.

The state responded by asking for documentation of the new video findings, which was received on Aug. 3, according to the Department of Ecology.

Farabee said DOE now would like to start installing equipment for grouting on Aug. 13 and start grouting on Sept. 6.

The state’s public comment period will end Sept. 5, but then the state will need time to consider public comments and prepare a final document.

To allow the state to get around the public comment requirement, DOE has asked for temporary authorization for the work, although most, if not all, of the grouting could be completed under the temporary authorization.

“People are very interested in this work,” Stephanie Schleif, facility transition project manager for Ecology, said at the Tuesday meeting.

“We are trying to balance the . . . wants of the public to weigh in on this proposal, as well as DOE’s presenting the urgency for stabilizing the tunnel sooner rather than later,” she said.

Ecology officials are expected to say more when the agency’s public comment period starts Monday.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533; @HanfordNews