The Most Toxic Nuclear Facility in the US Is in Lockdown

3,000 workers are sheltering as an emergency is declared at a nuclear facility in Washington State.

Daniel Oberhaus

Daniel Oberhaus

The Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant at Hanford. Image: Hanford.gov/Department of Energy

Early Tuesday morning, an emergency was declared at a nuclear site in Washington State after a tunnel containing radioactive material sunk in. This area of the massive Hanford complex, known as 200 East, has about 3,000 employees on site, all of whom have been told to shelter in place and avoid eating or drinking anything.

The tunnel was connected to a plutonium uranium extraction (PUREX) complex, which saw about about 75 percent of the plutonium processed from irradiated fuel rods at Hanford pass through its doors between 1956 and 1972 and 1983 to 1988. PUREX is connected to two tunnels by rail, which are used as a long-term storage option for materials removed from the plant. Together they provide enough storage space for 48 rail cars, although how much radioactive material was present in the tunnel at the time of the emergency hasn't been determined.

Officials are still trying to piece together what went wrong. "There is no confirmation of a tunnel collapse," a Hanford Site spokesperson told me over the phone. "What we saw that caused us to declare the emergency was a small area of sunken soil that covered the tunnel in question. There is no evidence of a radioactive release or contamination. All staff are accounted for and right now we have the Hanford Fire Department on standby."

According to tweets from Susannah Frame, an investigative reporter at KING 5 News in Washington, the incident may have been a result of construction work nearby.

Hanford was established in 1943 to process nuclear materials for the top-secret Manhattan Project. The plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb tested at Trinity in New Mexico, as well as in Fat Man, the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki in 1945.

The production of plutonium at Hanford ended in the 1980s, and in 1989, an agreement was struck between the DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency to totally demolish the site. As the DOE writes on its website, "nowhere in the DOE complex is cleanup more challenging than at the Hanford Site," which partly has to do with the "hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste…generated during the plutonium production days."

Read More: The Dumbest Ways to Store Nuclear Waste

Disposal of these liquid wastes were handled in a less-than-admirable fashion: they were poured onto the ground or into trenches or holding ponds. This, of course, has resulted in unintentional spills, which has led to Hanford's informal moniker as the "most toxic place in America" and "America's Chernobyl."

The decades-long cleanup process has also seen its own share of problems. Just last year, local news outlets reported a "leak in a massive nuclear waste storage tank" at Hanford, which some workers called "catastrophic," although the DOE said the leak had been anticipated and the waste had not entered the surrounding environment. The leak had been discovered in 2011 by a worker at the Hanford Site, but the Washington River Protection Solutions, a DOE contractor responsible for managing Hanford's millions of gallons of waste, had ignored the warning for nearly a year.

Want to know what it's like inside a nuclear waste facility? Watch Motherboard's 360/VR documentary on nuclear power.

Since clean-up efforts began over two decades ago, a number of studies have questioned the safety of workers at the site, after hundreds fell sick following exposed to toxic gasses emitted from waste holding tanks on site.

Then there's the problem of figuring out what to do with the waste stored at Hanford. Last year, a DOE review of the plant designed to treat the waste coming out of the Hanford site had found some 500 problems with the plant's design, which has already drawn criticism for its continuous delays and $12 billion price tag.

Today's emergency is just the latest debacle in the decades-long effort to clean-up and demolish one of the last vestiges of America's mid-century nuclear weapons orgy. It points to the immense technical and ethical difficulties involved with the proper storage and disposal of nuclear waste, another reminder that when it comes to nuclear energy and weapons, there is no such thing as a free lunch.