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History of Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington state

FILE--In this July 9, 2014, file photo, a sign warns of radioactivity near a wind direction flag indicator at the "C" tank farm on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. An emergency has been declared Tuesday, May 9, 2017, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation after a portion of a tunnel that contained rail cars full of nuclear waste collapsed. Randy Bradbury, a spokesman for the Washington state Department of Ecology, said officials detected no release of radiation and no workers were injured. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) — An emergency was declared at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state after the partial collapse of a storage tunnel that contains rail cars full of radioactive waste. Officials detected no release of radiation and said no workers were injured.

WHAT IS HANFORD?

The 500-square mile Hanford reservation was established by the Manhattan Project during World War II to make plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. Hanford made the plutonium for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and much of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal. It is located about 200 miles southeast of Seattle and is half the size of Rhode Island.

WHERE DID THE ACCIDENT HAPPEN?

The mishap occurred atop one of two rail tunnels under a plant located in the middle of the Hanford site. The Energy Department said soil collapsed two to four feet (half to 1.2 meters) over a 400 square foot (37.1 square meters) area. The agency says the rail tunnels are hundreds of feet long, with about eight feet (2.4 meters) of soil covering them.

WHAT WASTE IS STORED AT HANFORD?

The area contains about 56 million gallons (211.98 million liters) of radioactive waste, most of it in 177 underground tanks.

HAVE THERE BEEN SAFETY ISSUES BEFORE?

Yes. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit last fall against the Energy Department and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, contending tank vapors pose a serious risk to Hanford workers.

Ferguson says that since the early 1980s, hundreds of workers have been exposed to vapors escaping from nuclear waste storage tanks and that those breathing the vapors developed nosebleeds, chest and lung pain, headaches, coughing, sore throats, irritated eyes and difficulty breathing.

Lawyers for the Energy Department have said no evidence has been provided showing workers have been harmed by vapors.

HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE TO CLEAN UP THE ENTIRE FACILITY?

The latest estimate to finish the overall cleanup of Hanford is more than $107 billion and the work would take until 2060. The Energy Department in recent years has spent about $2 billion a year on cleanup work.

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