Lawmakers Request Probe of Hanford Tunnel Collapse

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By Sam Pearson

Lawmakers are seeking answers from the Government Accountability Office after a recent tunnel collapse at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state.

Authorities at the eastern Washington site declared an emergency and evacuated workers May 9 when a tunnel collapsed in part of the complex where millions of gallons of plutonium and other highly radioactive wastes are stored. Responders filled a 20-by-20 foot hole in a tunnel with 53 truckloads of soil to prevent worker injuries or the release of radioactive material.

In a letter to the GAO May 24, seven House and Senate members asked Congress’ investigative arm to find out how the Energy Department monitors the structural health of two tunnels in the area, which is known as the Plutonium-Uranium Extraction Plant. They are also seeking information on monitoring of other dated structures for similar risks, how contractors are held accountable for their performance, and future plans for the plant. If GAO completes an investigation of the incident, they said, it could prompt a greater understanding of what happened or lead to new protections for workers.

In the letter, lawmakers said they were “alarmed” by the event and “concerned that future events could put the safety of workers, the public and environment at risk.”

The letter was signed by Pacific Northwest lawmakers from both parties—Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell (D) and Patty Murray (D), Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) as well as Oregon Rep. Greg Walden (R), Washington Reps. Dan Newhouse (R) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R), and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) Cantwell is the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Walden and Pallone are the chairman and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

After the collapse, Cantwell visited the site May 13 and Walden requested an Energy Department briefing on the incident. At the time, Cantwell said in a statement that the problems “highlight the need for America to keep our commitment to the Hanford site cleanup.”

The White House budget proposal released May 23 calls for reducing Hanford cleanup funds from $921 million to $716 million—a 22 percent cut.

The Energy Department didn’t respond to requests for comment May 24. GAO spokesman Chuck Young said the agency would evaluate the request over the next several weeks.

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To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at

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The letter is available at

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