Employees on the 500 square mile site were led to precautionary sheltering and later released to go home Tuesday after officials said there was no indication the contamination had spread. With zero employee injuries and reports of the site moving now from "emergency phase to recovery phase," here are some details about the emergency accident at the Hanford site, which was built as part of the Manhattan Project, for nuclear production.
Details of the breached tunnel
During a routine surveillance of the area on May 9, a 20-foot-wide hole in the roof of a tunnel was discovered near the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant, also known as PUREX, the Hanford Joint Information Center reported. According to Associated Press reports, the routine inspection occurred during a massive radioactive waste cleanup that has been underway since the 1980s, which costs more than $2 billion a year.
Immediately following the discovery, an emergency was declared, access to the 200 East area of the Hanford site where the incident took place was restricted, and at least 12 employees in the area were evacuated. Crew officials later ordered all employees to take precautionary shelter while the scene remained under investigation.
After officials confirmed that the contamination had not spread, sheltered employees and non-essential employees of the facility's 9,000 worker labor force were sent home, according to AP. An employee advisory is still in effect for workers today as crews prepare to fill the hole with new soil.
The Energy Department also confirmed that no action was required for the nearly 300,000 residents in the surrounding Benton and Franklin communities, according to AP.
A public tour was in progress when the breach in the tunnel was discovered. According to Hanford officials, the tour was cut short for precautionary reasons and no one was reported injured.
Hanford tours, which started about two weeks ago, are open to the public and occur on most weekdays.
History of the tunnel and Hanford
The 60-year-old tunnel, constructed of wood and concrete, is next to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant, according to the Hanford Joint Information Center.
PUREX is longer than three football fields, stands 64 feet above the ground, and extends another 40 feet below ground, according to details on Hanford's site. It was a nuclear chemical processing plant, as well as a site for radioactive waste disposal.
"That tunnel feeds into a longer tunnel that extends hundreds more feet and contains 28 rail cars loaded with contaminated equipment," the center said in a statement Tuesday night. "The hole opened up in the shorter tunnel near where it joins the longer tunnel."
Hanford officials confirmed that preparation to stabilize and fill the hole started around 8 p.m. PST Tuesday, with personnel laying down a gravel road that leads to the collapsed section of the tunnel. Approximately 50 truckloads of soil are slated to help to repair the tunnel.
Access is still restricted to the immediate area where the accident took place and workers performing the recovery work are wearing protective suits and breathing masks.
ABC News Karma Allen, Matt Gutman and Morgan Winsor contributed to this report.