Emergency declared at Hanford nuclear site in Washington state

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Federal officials said there was no sign that any radioactive material had leaked after crews discovered that a 20-foot (six-meter) section of a 100-foot long tunnel - containing rail cars filled with nuclear waste - had caved in.

"Secretary Perry has been briefed on the incident at DOE's Hanford site".

"This is sort of a forgotten legacy of the nuclear age", said Paul Carroll, the director of programs for the nuclear nonproliferation group Ploughshares Fund and who previously worked on nuclear cleanup programs for the Department of Energy.

No spent nuclear fuel is stored in the tunnel, and no further evacuations have been ordered for workers, nor have any warnings for civilians around the site been issued, she said. And although workers were being sent home for the day, it didn't sound like anyone was in any immediate danger. The last of the radioactive waste was put into the tunnels in 1989, using remotely operated trains, they added.

Although there is still a lot of work to be done at the site, considerable progress has been made to reduce the risks posed to the health and safety of the community and the environment, the department wrote. The United States is in the process of dismantling and decommissioning the site.

But this is hardly the first headline to stem from the site, which is located just 200 miles from Seattle, Washington. The tunnels underneath the earth contain hazardous materials. "Collapse of the earth covering the tunnels could lead to a considerable radiological release". Workers in other areas of the Hanford Site have been told to stay inside.

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Spokeswoman for the Oregon Energy Department spokeswoman Rachel Wray, meanwhile, cautiously told USA Today, "Hanford is 35 miles away from Oregon".

The budget for Hanford alone is about US$2.3b in the current fiscal year, about US$1.5b of that going to the management and treatment of approximately 211m litres of radioactive liquid waste now stored in underground storage tanks.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a non-profit that monitors the nuclear reservation said plutonium has already been detected in local fish stocks and worries that if changes don't come soon, wild salmon stocks could be next.

Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons and is now the nation's largest depository of radioactive defence waste, with about 56 million gallons of waste, most of it in 177 underground tanks.

According to CBS News, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was created during World War II to secretly build the atomic bomb. He said the plant lies near the middle of the sprawling Hanford site and was "a very high hazard operation".