Along the Columbia River in Southern Washington, lies the notorious Hanford Site. This sprawling nuclear facility was once a critical component of America’s nuclear arsenal. Hanford was first established in 1943 for the Manhattan Project, and continued to operate during the Cold War. The vast quantities of plutonium that were produced there were used to build the majority of our government’s nuclear weapons during the 20th century.
Now however, the rundown facility is a massive liability. The Hanford site has been leaking radioactive materials into the environment for decades, and in 2007 it was was called “the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.” To give you an idea of just how contaminated Hanford is, in 2014 the government estimated that it would cost $113.6 billion to clean up the entire site.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Hanford experienced a serious emergency today when a railway tunnel containing nuclear materials suddenly collapsed. 4,000 workers at the site have been evacuated, and the FAA has been told to place a flight restriction on the area.
The accident occurred at a facility known as PUREX, located in the middle of the sprawling Hanford site, which is half the size of Rhode Island. The closed PUREX plant was part of the nation’s nuclear weapons production complex.
Authorities say the collapse took place within one of two rail tunnels under the PUREX site, which contains contaminated materials. One tunnel is about 360 feet long, and the other spans approximately 1,700 feet. The partial collapse, which covered about 400 square feet, took place in an area where the two tunnels join together. The incident caused the soil above the tunnel to sink between 2 and 4 feet.
The discovery of subsided soil was made during routine surveillance of a 20-foot area in the tunnel.
No workers were inside the tunnel when it collapsed, but nearby crews were evacuated as a precaution. Some employees were asked to secure ventilation and shelter indoors while others were sent home early. The entrance to the site has been restricted.
It’s believed that the collapse was caused by construction crews doing road work above the tunnels. Fortunately, it appears that a serious radioactive leak has been narrowly avoided. No radiation has been detected at this time, and all of the Hanford workers are accounted for.
However, one can’t help but imagine how devastating this situation could have been. That’s why it’s important for everyone to prepare for nuclear disasters. Even when the government isn’t teetering on the brink of war with countries like Russia and China, Americans could still come face to face with a domestic nuclear disaster.
Aside from nuclear storage facilities, millions of Americans live near aging nuclear power plants, many of which lie within the New Madrid fault zone. And let’s not forget that our government frequently transports nuclear weapons on our highways. If this incident at Hanford teaches us anything, it’s that there are plenty of ways our nation could face a nuclear disaster outside of war, and it’d be foolish to not be prepared for that possibility.