Second Hanford Radioactive Tunnel Collapse Expected, And it could be More Severe

But concerns increased after a video inspection of the interior of the tunnel was done this spring, Wood said.

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An illustration shows what could happen if corrosion causes one steel beam to fall at a Hanford waste storage tunnel, leading to more beams falling.
Courtesy Department of Energy

At a hearing Monday night [August 27], he explained the risks posed by the nuclear reservation’s second tunnel.

The meeting focused on whether the Washington state Department of Ecology, a regulator of the nuclear reservation, should allow DOE to fill the tunnel with concrete-like grout.

Public comment was split on the issue, particularly on whether the state should allow grouting to start before the end of a public comment period.

DOE wants work to begin within weeks to stabilize the tunnel before the worst of the winter weather.

The Department of Ecology has said DOE must wait to allow the public to weigh in before it is possibly allowed to take the irreversible action of filling the second Hanford tunnel at the PUREX processing plant with grout.

However, the state continues to receive and consider additional briefings and more in-depth information about the condition of the second tunnel.

Wood said the video inspection showed rusting metal, starting near one end of the 1,700-foot-long tunnel where filtered air was exhausted.

Steel beams were used to reinforce the tunnel after initial construction problems, and corrosion was found both in the bolts used to anchor the beams to concrete arches and in the beams.

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.

Corrosion increases the risk of failure, Wood said. Engineers also are concerned that if one beam fails, there will be a “zipper” effect with more beams coming down, increasing the potential severity of a failure.

“Structural failure has to be anticipated. It is going to happen,” Wood said. “It’s a 60-year-old facility. It is corroded. Sooner or later it is going to go.”

Airborne radioactive particles could be released into the air, particularly if a beam should puncture a waste package. The tunnel holds 28 rail cars loaded with failed or obsolete equipment that is highly contaminated with radioactive waste.

Mitigating the risk is the eight feet of soil topping the tunnel, which could fall in and help contain the airborne spread of radioactive material.

Representatives of local government and business interests said at the public hearing that their top priority is that another waste storage collapse at the nuclear reservation not harm Hanford workers, the public or the environment.

But they also are concerned about what another collapse would do to the region’s and the world’s perception of the Tri-Cities, they said at Monday’s hearing.

As news spread of the May 9, 2017, partial collapse of the first tunnel built at the PUREX plant, the collapse became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter.

It was bumped down the list only when President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.

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The drawing shows the placement of railcars holding radioactive waste in the second Hanford PUREX plant storage tunnel and the risers that provide access into the tunnel for possible grouting work, including inserting lighting and video cameras.
Courtesy Department of Energy

Within 10 minutes of news of the collapse breaking, 10 national news media organizations had called Hanford’s emergency communications center. Within 20 minutes, the story went international, according to DOE.

That was despite the fact that the portion of the roof that collapsed measured just 20-feet-by-20-feet and no release of airborne radiation was detected.

“Imagine if a catastrophic collapse happens,” said Pam Larsen, executive director of Hanford Communities, a coalition of local governments.

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Video shot inside the second radioactive waste storage at Hanford showed corrosion of metal parts in spring 2018. The tunnel was built in 1964.
Courtesy Department of Energy

Eastern Washington is an agricultural region, with wheat and fruit among the crops exported.

“The health and safety of this region is of concern to people who are buying our products around the world,” she said.

The Tri-City Development Council also is calling for the second tunnel to be grouted as soon as possible.

As news of the partial breach of the first tunnel spread, major U.S. and international news organizations posted “inaccurate stories leading to rampant speculation and misinformation being distributed, which was detrimental to the community,” said David Reeploeg, TRIDEC vice president of federal programs, reading from a TRIDEC letter sent earlier this month to state officials.

Regional agricultural producers were getting questions about the safety of their products, and sports organizations were reconsidering whether or not to hold tournaments in the Tri-Cities, the letter said.

“Another collapse cannot happen without it having devastating effects on business and agriculture in this area,” said Steve Anderson, president of the Tri-Cities Local Business Association. “Concerns would be exploded in the public space beyond any real, relative reality.”

But others at the meeting agreed that the state should complete a public comment process that extends through Sept. 27 before it makes a decision on whether grouting is the best option.

“I am among those concerned about the permanence of grout,” said Susan Leckband. “This is not a sprint. This is a marathon.”

Leckband, the chairwoman of the Hanford Advisory Board, spoke not on behalf of the board but as an area resident and former Hanford worker.

Grouting waste would only stabilize the tunnel, and DOE and its regulators would later need to develop a long-term cleanup plan for the tunnel.

DOE has said it is possible to saw up the grout in large pieces based on the location of rail cars and then lift the block of grout out for disposal.

However, another option would be to leave the waste grouted in place permanently in the tunnel, with a cap placed over it to prevent precipitation from infiltrating and possibly spreading any uncontained waste.

Laura Hanses, a Hanford worker, urged the state to consider long-term consequences and costs.

Conn Clark said he opposed grouting. DOE may be racing to make the tunnel a permanent repository, he said.

The first tunnel, which is 360 feet long and stores eight rail cars loaded with contaminated equipment, was filled with grout by November 2017. Ecology allowed the grouting under emergency conditions without a public hearing.

A second public hearing was planned for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 5 at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 NE 41st St., Seattle.
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Annette Cary is a reporter for Tri-CityHerald. This article was published on August 28 at Tri-CityHerald.

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