A major emergency at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington, prompted state officials to order workers at the nuclear waste site to take shelter on Tuesday, May 9. A 20-square-foot hole collapsed in the roof of a tunnel used to house contaminated material, and the Department of Energy declared an emergency situation at the site. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is located near the Columbia River, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest region, and the primary source of fresh water to numerous communities along its route.
With hundreds of employees evacuated and a state of emergency declared at Hanford, as well as the potential contamination of the Columbia, an incident like this would normally make major headlines across the nation. However, another major story overshadowed this one: President Donald Trump’s controversial firing of now-former FBI Director James Comey.
That isn’t surprising because Comey’s dismissal was so sudden and shocking. Twitter alone saw almost 2.7 million mentions about Comey just in the 24 hours after the news broke. Even now, days later, cable news and social media are still talking about it, trying to figure out why Comey was fired, and why now. But the grip that held most of the attention of the U.S. and the world helped ensure that the emergency situation at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation went mostly unreported.
— DOE Press Staff (@EnergyPressSec) May 10, 2017
As the news of Comey’s dismissal held the nation’s attention, spurring conjecture on Trump’s reasoning and timing, the Hanford site was undergoing an investigation into the sinkhole found on Tuesday. All personnel at the site have been accounted for, and there were no injuries reported. Department of Energy officials also stated that no radiation had contaminated the immediate area following the tunnel’s collapse, and the hole has been filled in since then.
There are still some unanswered questions, however, particularly about how long the hole had actually been open. According to Energy Department spokesperson Mark Heeter, there really isn’t any way of knowing exactly when the sinkhole caused the tunnel to collapse. Through investigation, it was discovered that the Hanford Nuclear Reservation conducts what Washington State officials called infrequent tunnel inspections. The last recorded site inspection had been four days prior to the discovery of the hole.
Alex Smith, the Nuclear Waste Manager for the Department of Ecology in Washington state, reassured those concerned about contamination that any radioactivity would have been immediately detected by monitoring technology at the site. Heeter also speculated that the eight feet of dirt that fell into the hole following the tunnel’s collapse had possibly prevented any radioactive contamination from escaping. However, Smith made his own concerns known regarding Hanford’s inspection procedures, saying “It’s not acceptable that the hole could have been open for four days.”
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is part of a mostly decommissioned nuclear complex established in 1943 and operated by the U.S. government as part of the Manhatten Project. Hanford is home to the historic B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium-239 production reactor, which produced the material used in the world’s first nuclear bombs. “Fat Man,” the bomb that was used on Nagasaki, Japan, in World War II, was made with plutonium from Hanford. During the cold war era, Hanford production ramped up as a result of the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but the site was decommissioned after the cold war ended.
Although nuclear production had mostly ceased at Hanford, waste from decades of plutonium-239 production was still an issue, and the site became mostly a storage facility for radioactive waste material. By the time U.S.-Soviet tensions began to ease, there were 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste, 25 million cubic feet of solid waste, and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater underneath the 586-square-mile reservation. As of 2007, the waste materials at Hanford represented a full two-thirds of U.S. nuclear waste volume, and the site is the most contaminated in the nation.
The situation discovered at Hanford on Tuesday isn’t the first problem that the energy department has had with the safe storage of contaminated waste. In 2011, after the DOE switched from single-shell tanks to newer double-shell tanks, the agency found that water had been intruding into over a dozen of the older tanks and that one of those tanks had been leaking over 600 gallons of contaminated materials into the ground each year. Soon after, another leak was discovered, this time in one of the new double-shell tanks as a result of construction flaws and corrosion. It was also found that 12 other double-shell tanks had the same flaws.
This raises even bigger concerns with the safe storage and disposal of radioactive waste at the site. As the infrastructure at Hanford, which is already decades old, continues to age, there is a higher risk of the same sort of incident that was seen on Tuesday. Even though the filling of the sink hole “was accomplished swiftly and safely to prevent any further complications,” according to a statement from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the next emergency situation might not be so easily contained.
“Our next step is to identify and implement longer-term measures to further reduce risks,” Perry continued. This followed a demand by Washington state officials for an immediate assessment of the structural integrity of the storage tunnels at Hanford by the DOE. But critics, who have long complained about the inadequate safety measures at Hanford, see the recent emergency as a confirmation of their criticisms that the toxic materials are being stored in hazardous conditions. In the end, the overall lack of coverage of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation emergency is a clear indication that, although the turmoil in the U.S. political landscape is often overwhelmingly captivating, there are still plenty of things that require attention other than Trump’s latest tweets.
[Featured Image by Ted S. Warren/AP Images]