It’s early morning May 9, 2017, on southeast Washington’s Hanford nuclear reservation. A small crew working outside the shuttered Plutonium Uranium Extraction plant detects an ever-so-slight increase in background radiation. Not enough to cause alarm; just to pique their curiosity.
Looking around, they find part of the roof of an underground storage tunnel collapsed. The tunnel stores highly radioactive waste.
That sets off the alarms.
Within minutes, the entire 586-square-mile site locks down. Thousands of workers shelter in place – their Tweets, texts and emails alerting the world to a potentially catastrophic event on one of the nation’s most dangerously contaminated sites.
The tunnel – PUREX Tunnel 1 – contains eight flat-bed rail cars loaded with highly radioactive equipment. But there’s no detectable release of radioactive contamination and no one is hurt. Within hours, the site operator, the U.S. Department of Energy, plugs the hole with dirt, and attention turns to longer-term solutions to secure the tunnel and its much larger and longer companion, Tunnel 2.
|PUREX Tunnel 2 under construction in the mid-1960s. Eight feet of soil was added to serve as a radiation shield.|