Hanford PUREX tunnel collapse: looking back one year later - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Hanford PUREX tunnel collapse: looking back one year later

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RICHLAND, WA - It's been exactly one year since the partial collapse of one of the PUREX tunnels at Hanford. The collapse put 3,000 workers under a shelter in place order. Thankfully, no one got hurt, but an important lesson came of it.

"Engine 1912, rescue 1912, medic 1922, medic 1921, respond PUREX tunnel for a possible collapse of the tunnel," a dispatcher called out over the scanner a year ago.

What started off as a normal day quickly changed for thousands of Hanford workers. Just before 8:30 a.m. on May 9, 2017, workers found dirt collapsed over the tunnel where radioactive materials are stored.

Scanner: "It's just releasing contamination and high radiation out of the tunnel."

This left family members waiting anxiously to hear if their loved ones were okay.

Construction started on the PUREX plant in the 1950's, and it would take 6 years for it to become the largest chemical processing facility at Hanford.

For more than 20 years, workers purified fuel for nuclear reactors or weapons... but that came to an end in 1996 when the PUREX plant was fully deactivated.

So why... 21 years later... did one of the tunnels near the plant collapse?

Hanford watchers say it was the result of limited money to take care of the deteriorating structures, and that it was only a matter of time before something happened.

Back in November, Hanford workers were finally able to safely stabilize the 20-by-20 foot opening over the tunnel. And even though no one was hurt and no radioactive waste escaped, the tunnel collapsing shed light on a bigger problem at Hanford.