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Hanford sounds all-clear after steam sparks alarm

Hanford waste site
Crews inspected the area around a tunnel at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation that contains nuclear waste. (Department of Energy Photo)

Workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state were told to take cover for several hours today when steam was seen escaping from a tunnel where radioactive waste is being stored.

The take-cover order was lifted at about 12:15 p.m. PT when inspectors confirmed that there was no radiological release from Tunnel 2 at Hanford’s Plutonium Uranium Extraction facility, or PUREX, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Richland Operations Office reported in an update.

For the past few weeks, Hanford workers have been filling the 1,688-foot-long tunnel with thousands of cubic yards of grout to guard against the tunnel’s collapse. The tunnel, which dates back to 1964, houses a set of 28 rail cars that contain contaminated equipment. The last rail car was placed inside in 1996.

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Tunnel collapse sparks emergency at Hanford

Hanford tunnel collapse
This picture shows the 20-by-20-foot area where soil has caved in over a storage tunnel at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. (Hanford via Twitter)

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation says a 20-foot section of a tunnel system where it stores contaminated material and equipment collapsed today, sparking an emergency alert and restrictions on workers’ movements. No injuries were reported.

A remotely operated TALON robot surveyed the scene and detected no release of contamination, Hanford said in its online update on the emergency.

Hanford said workers conducting routine surveillance this morning discovered the 20-by-20-foot hole in the roof of one of the two storage tunnels at the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant, or PUREX Plant, in the site’s central 200 East Area.

The tunnels were constructed of wood and concrete during the Cold War, and covered with about 8 feet of soil. They’ve been used for decades to store contaminated equipment from plutonium production operations at the site in southeastern Washington state.

The cave-in occurred in the 200 East Area, around a spot where the two tunnels join together, Hanford said.

The workers on the surveillance team were evacuated, and thousands of employees sheltered in place for hours. As of this afternoon, all non-essential employees at the Hanford site have been released, officials said in a tweet.

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LIGO goes back to the gravity-wave grind

Image: LIGO Hanford
The beamlines for the LIGO detector site at Hanford stretch out across the desert terrain of southeastern Washington. Each arm of the L-shaped detector is 2.5 miles long. (Credit: LIGO)

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory is back on the hunt for ripples in spacetime, months after reporting the first signature of a black hole collision in gravitational waves.

After a series of upgrades, the LIGO detectors at Hanford in Washington state and near Livingston, La., made the transition from engineering test runs to science observations at 8 a.m. PT today.

LIGO’s first detection of gravitational waves – a phenomenon that was predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity back in 1915 – occurred during an engineering run in September 2015. But it took until February for the LIGO team to confirm the detection and report it to the world.

Scientists determined that the faint perturbations in the fabric of spacetime were created by a smash-up involving two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away. The violent collision created one bigger black hole, but in the process, an amount of mass equivalent to three suns was converted into gravitational waves.

LIGO picked up a second, smaller pulse of gravitational waves last December. Then the detectors were shut down in January for the upgrades.

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Contamination found at another Hanford tank

Image: Double-shell tank
This graphic shows a cutaway view of a double-shell nuclear waste storage tank at the Hanford Site. (Credit: Washington State Department of Ecology)

Workers at Eastern Washington’s Hanford Site are trying to track down the source of radioactive contamination at an underground waste storage tank, one week after an internal leak sparked concern about a different tank at the facility.

Both double-walled tanks were put into service 45 years ago to hold radioactive and chemical wastes from plutonium production for the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Each tank is 75 feet wide and can hold a million gallons of waste.

One of the tanks, AY-102, has been the subject of concern for years. That’s where an alarm went off on April 17, when liquid waste and sludge leaked through the tank’s inner wall and built up to a depth of 8 inches in the space between the inner and outer walls.

That leak was cleaned up, and nearly all of the waste that was in AY-102 has been transferred to other storage tanks. But now the U.S. Department of Energy says air filter samples from the space between the walls in the other tank, AY-101, registered higher than normal levels of radioactive contamination this month.

“While these readings were higher than normal, they were well below the alarm level,” the Energy Department’s Office of River Protection said in a statement.

So far, visual inspections and detection instruments have shown no evidence of a leak in the tank’s inner wall, but workers at the Energy Department and its contractor for the tank farms, Washington River Protection Solutions, are continuing to look. “DOE is conducting engineering analysis and assessments to determine potential causes of the readings,” the department said.

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Hanford waste removal resumes after leak check

Workers install transfer lines in March to connect the equipment for transferring toxic waste from Hanford’s Tank AY-102 to another double-shell tank. (Credit: DOE)
Workers install transfer lines in March to connect the equipment for transferring toxic waste from Hanford’s Tank AY-102 to another double-shell tank. (Credit: DOE)

The U.S. Department of Energy says there’s no sign that toxic waste has leaked into the environment from a double-shell storage tank at Eastern Washington’s Hanford Site, and it has resumed operations to remove the waste from the tank.

Last weekend, an alarm was set off when sensors detected that the level of sludge had risen to about 8 inches deep in the space between the inner and outer walls of Tank AY-102.

Leaks in the inner wall of that underground tank have been causing problems for years, and last month, workers began pumping the mixed radioactive and chemically toxic waste out of the tank for storage in other double-shell tanks. Even before the procedure began, planners determined there was a chance that disturbing the material in AY-102 could cause more waste to leak into the space between the walls.

“We were prepared for this event,” Glyn Trenchard, the Energy Department’s deputy assistant manager for Hanford’s tank farms, said April 21 in a statement.

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Nuclear waste leak triggers alarm at Hanford

Image: Double-shell tank
This graphic shows a cutaway view of a double-shell nuclear waste storage tank at the Hanford Site. Liquid waste has pooled up in the space between the inner and outer shell of one tank, designated AY-102. (Credit: Washington State Department of Ecology)

A long-simmering leak inside a double-walled nuclear waste storage tank at the Hanford Site in Eastern Washington got worse over the weekend, sparking an alarm, officials said today.

Online reports from the Tri-City Herald and KING-TV said that the leak detection alarm came on Sunday morning, and that radioactive waste had pooled between the inner and outer shell of Hanford’s Tank AY-102 to a depth of about 8 inches. By today, the waste level had dropped slightly, the U.S. Department of Energy said in a statement emailed to GeekWire.

The Washington State Department of Ecology said there was “no indication of waste leaking into the environment or risk to the public at this time.”

KING quoted a former Hanford worker, Mike Geffre, as saying the leak had become catastrophic. “This is probably the biggest event to ever happen in tank farm history,” he said.

Today’s statements from federal and state officials made the situation sound less dire, however.

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