Officials at the Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington state were moving "towards the recovery phase" Tuesday night after a section of a tunnel used to house contaminated radioactive materials was breached earlier, the U.S. Department of Energy said. "Five huge plants in the center of the Hanford Site processed 110,000 tons of fuel from the reactors, discharging an estimated 450 billion gallons of liquids to soil disposal sites and 53 million gallons of radioactive waste to 177 large underground tanks", the US Department of Energy's Office of Environmental Management said on its website.
The collapse of a tunnel containing radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear weapons complex underscored what critics have always been saying: The toxic remnants of the Cold War are being stored in haphazard and unsafe conditions, and time is running out to deal with the problem.
Hanford leaders continue to say that no contamination at the site was reported and that no one was hurt.
Destry Henderson, spokesperson for the site's emergency operations centre, said no employees were hurt in the collapse and no radiation release has been detected.
The spokesman warns the process will be done slowly, safely and methodically.
There was an emergency situation at this site in Washington state after a tunnel full of highly contaminated materials collapsed.
The collapse is near PUREX, an old Cold War factory in the center of Hanford that was used to extract plutonium for use in nuclear bombs.
The task of Hanford cleanup has been contracted to Washington River Protection Solutions which is estimated to take 110 billion to clean up nearly "56 million gallons of chemical and nuclear waste, stored in 177 underground tanks" and could take 50 years. Now, about 8,000 people are working on a massive cleanup that is expected to cost more than $100 billion and last through 2060.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington said worker safety must be the priority.
Workers are wearing protective suits and breathing masks, said the department, which issued a video of the remediation.
"I know that's one of the things that they've been trying to determine, is when it might have happened", said Ken Niles, the administrator of the Oregon Hanford Cleanup Board for the Oregon Department of Ecology.
Railcars filled with radioactive waste are buried in the wood and concrete tunnels, which are covered by about 8feet of soil. That order will remain in effect until Wednesday evening for non-essential overnight worker too.
But non-essential workers at the Hanford site, which employs some 9,000 people, were told to stay home Wednesday.
"No action is now required for residents of Benton and Franklin counties", the Energy Department said on Tuesday, referring to the almost 300,000 residents near the site.
U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry acknowledged the problem with nuclear waste, saying the nation can no longer delay fixing the problem because lives are at stake. "There is no indication of a release of contamination at this point". Notably, plutonium produced at Hanford was used in the bomb US military forces dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
The committee oversees the department's management of the cleanup efforts.