KUOW reports that the Department of Energy will fill in a second tunnel packed with radioactive equipment at Hanford, a largely decommissioned nuclear production complex in Eastern Washington along the Columbia River.
The move comes after a first tunnel, also filled with radioactive materials, collapsed last spring. (For more background on the site, check out Sydney's in-depth report from May.) After that collapse was discovered, the Dept. of Energy initially threw a tarp over it, and then, six months later, contractors filled it with truck loads of grout. While this is in no way a long-term solution for a serious radioactive waste problem (Hanford it the largest nuclear waste site in the Western Hemisphere—the soil is contaminated, the groundwater is contaminated, it's all contaminated), the DOE says filling in the tunnel minimized the risk of radioactive leaks. And you should trust the the DOE because Dancing with the Stars alum Rick Perry now runs the department.
Tunnel 2 is a lot larger than Tunnel 1—nearly 1,700 feet long and holds 28 rail cars containing old contaminated equipment from a plutonium processing plant. Crews expect to start grouting up the tunnel before next fall.
Critics, including Northwest tribes, have said that grouting closed these massive tunnels essentially makes them permanent radioactive waste dumps.
Tunnel 2 was built in the early 1960s and has had known structural problems. Government officials worry that the tunnel is under strain and that another collapse could send up a plume of radioactive dust.
There are other concerns. As reporter Michael Lewis detailed in an astounding Vanity Fair feature on the DOE under President Trump (seriously, read this piece):
From 1943 until 1987, as the Cold War was ending and Hanford closed its reactors, the place created two-thirds of the plutonium in the United States’ arsenal—a total of 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945. You’d like to think that if anyone had known the environmental consequences of plutonium, or if anyone could have been certain that the uranium bomb would work, they’d never have done here what they did. “Plutonium is hard to produce,” said MacWilliams. “And hard to get rid of.” By the late 1980s the state of Washington had gained some clarity on just how hard and began to negotiate with the U.S. government. In the ensuing agreement the United States promised to return Hanford to a condition where, as MacWilliams put it, “kids can eat the dirt.” When I asked him to guess what it would cost to return Hanford to the standards now legally required, he said, “A century and a hundred billion dollars.” And that was a conservative estimate.
Now, instead of producing nuclear weapons, Hanford mostly cleans it up. Ten percent of the DOE's annual budget—or $3 billion a year—goes to Hanford, where thousands of people are still employed in the cleanup. Ironically, Trump has promised to slash the DOE's budget, and yet, the Tri-Cities still area voted for him by 25 points. And while Trump dismantles the federal government—and Rick Perry still hasn't figured out what the department under his watch actually does—"a massive underground glacier of radioactive sludge is moving slowly, but relentlessly, toward the Columbia River," as Lewis writes. And from there, it moves west, headed directly toward Portland.