The Yakama Nation is calling for immediate removal of all nuclear waste from the Hanford Site, where on May 9 a 400-square-foot hole opened up into a tunnel storing radioactive material left over from World War 2.
While there were no injuries or release of radioactivity into the environment, several workers were evacuated as a precaution, and about 3,000 employees were told to take cover inside, according to NPR. The state of emergency has since been lifted, and the 20-by-20-foot hole has been filled in, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said on May 11.
The cave-in occurred at the meeting point between two tunnels that lie next to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Facility (PUREX) and was found during routine surveillance, according to the DOE. The Hanford Site lies next to the Columbia River, a key cultural and ecological resource for the Yakama, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Wanapum, according to the DOE Tribal Program at Hanford. The tunnels contain rail cars holding radioactive equipment and other materials, according to The Spokesman-Review newspaper out of Spokane, Washington, though the stored items do not include spent fuel rods.
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“Hanford is the nation’s largest nuclear cleanup site, with 56 million gallons of radioactive waste sitting in old, leaky underground tanks just a few hours upriver from Portland,” reported Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2016. “After more than 20 years and $19 billion, not a drop of waste has been treated.”
The site is just 20 miles from the Yakama Reservation, according to Earth Island Journal. The Yakama, who have been advocating for cleanup for years, said the cave-in was exactly what the tribe has feared since waste was first stored there “temporarily” between 1960 and ’65. The cleanup has never been completed, and deadlines to do so have been extended several times.
“This tunnel collapse is a clear example of why the Yakama Nation has concerns with the U.S. DOE continuously extending cleanup deadlines at the Hanford Nuclear Site,” said Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman Chi’ Qwax (JoDe Goudy) in a statement. “Although we are relieved that there are no known injuries or radioactive releases to the environment, it does not negate the fact that the existence of the Hanford Nuclear Site, which is the largest hazardous waste site in the western hemisphere and within Yakama homelands, is yet another legacy of hundreds of years of Euro-American doctrines of domination and dehumanization of the Native peoples. The Yakama Nation is extremely disappointed that although we have expressed our concerns for several years regarding the integrity of these tunnels and the hazardous material contained within, no preventative action was taken.”
Indeed, two years ago a study warned the DOE that those very tunnels were in danger of collapse, The Spokesman-Review reported on May 9.
Hanford was one of the Manhattan Project sites during World War 2, where plutonium was processed for the earliest atomic bombs. The current cleanup deadline is 2042, but the Yakama said that is too far away.
“The Yakama Nation expects the Tri Party (U.S. DOE, Washington State, and the Environmental Protection Agency) to reconsider the 2042 deadline for tunnel cleanup and take immediate steps to remove, treat, and dispose of the radioactive material,” Goudy said, adding that he had invited U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry “to discuss this and other serious concerns at the Hanford Nuclear Site so that we can take actions to properly protect our Yakama homelands and the Columbia Plateau.”
The Yakama were joined in their concern by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who also censured the federal government, issuing an enforcement order to the DOE via the state Department of Ecology. The order directed the DOE to “immediately assess the integrity of the tunnels and take swift corrective action,” the state ecology department said in a statement.
“This alarming emergency compels us to take immediate action—to hold the federal government accountable to its obligation to clean up the largest nuclear waste site in the country,” said Washington Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon in the statement. “The infrastructure built to temporarily store radioactive waste is now more than a half-century old. The tunnel collapse is direct evidence that it’s failing. It’s the latest in a series of alarms that the safety and health of Hanford workers and our citizens are at risk.”