Hanford Nuclear Site

  • By Paul Lindholdt and Lilian Seitz
  • Posted 10/26/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21101
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Originally known as Hanford Engineer Works, the Hanford Nuclear Site was built in the early 1940s to produce fuel for nuclear weapons, including the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and effectively ended World War II. Weapons production continued at Hanford during the Cold War, and in 1964 the facility began generating electricity for the Pacific Northwest. But Hanford's nuclear reactors, eight by 1955, also produced massive amounts of radioactive waste, much of which was released into the environment. Worker-safety issues, mismanagement, and public-health dangers were subsequently revealed, and Hanford was decommissioned in 1989. Since then, it has mostly treated the waste it generated. In 2015, Hanford's nearly 600-square-mile expanse along the Columbia River near Richland became part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. The park also includes decommissioned nuclear sites in New Mexico and Tennessee. Hanford's B Reactor, preserved and designated a National Historic Landmark, began hosting public tours in 2009.

The Lay of the Land

The top-secret Hanford Engineer Works was built by DuPont under contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Its purpose was to extract plutonium from spent uranium to develop nuclear bombs. The project was directed by the U.S. government's Manhattan Project, a secret atomic weapons race against Germany during World War II. Named after the farming town of Hanford in Benton County, the building of the site displaced the town's residents when construction began in March 1943. The Manhattan Project was highly classified, and the site's remote location was chosen for safety and secrecy -- and its proximity to rushing water from the Columbia River, needed to cool the reactors and produce hydroelectric energy to power them.

Hanford's construction closed off hundreds of square miles of land and river. Government officials evicted about 1,500 people from their homes, and disinterred 177 bodies from the White Bluffs cemetery and moved them to Prosser. The town of Hanford's residents, mostly farmers, were given 30 days to evacuate. They were told that they would be compensated for the values of their homes and businesses. The condemned area also included sacred fishing grounds of the Wanapum, a Native tribe whose name translates to "river people" and who traveled large stretches of the Columbia to catch salmon for trade and sustenance.

In addition to Hanford, the government acquired the farming town of Richland, about 15 miles from the nuclear site. Gustav Albin Pehrson, a Swedish-born architect from Spokane, was selected to transform Richland into a suburban-style community complete with schools, churches, a hotel, and a hospital for the 16,000 Hanford employees and their families. Construction took 18 months, and the rapid assembly-line and prefabrication techniques Pehrson used to build Richland would be adopted later in the creation of other suburban U.S. communities after World War II.

Richland and Hanford were racially segregated, and white workers were paid more than workers of color for the same jobs. Nonwhite workers -- who were given mostly temporary and menial jobs as construction or food workers -- were not allowed to live in Richland. Separate barracks were built for the more than 5,000 Black construction workers. Two buildings in Pasco ­-- a long bus ride from the work site -- housed the fewer than 50 Mexican American construction workers.

Plunging Into the Cold War

The first Hanford reactor began operating in 1944. The thousands of engineers, civil servants, and laborers at the facility created the plutonium for the bomb that the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, effectively ending World War II. After the war, the military's need for plutonium diminished, and in 1947, the military turned over control of the nuclear program to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). But soon Hanford was again producing weapons plutonium for the escalating Cold War, and to ensure secrecy and security, the AEC was given authority as a standalone agency with little oversight. Its commission was to research, develop, produce, and regulate nuclear power.

After the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in 1949, the U.S. military and AEC officials ordered Hanford physicists to conduct an experiment known as the Green Run, in which unfiltered radioactive iodine was discharged into the atmosphere, allowing scientists to learn how to track airborne radioactive materials. Meanwhile, Hanford's reactors lacked containment shells, a safety measure to protect against exposure in the event of an explosion. Chemical processing workers, unaware of the dangers, often handled toxic materials with bare hands. Despite Manhattan Project medical experts' recommendation that DuPont avoid employing pre-menopausal women due to reproductive health risks, most of the women hired at Hanford were in their twenties and thirties. It wasn't until 1986 that the public was made aware of the Green Run experiment.  

By 1955 there were eight nuclear reactors at the site, but because they were projected to last just 20 more years, local and state officials lobbied for a ninth reactor to prevent the inevitable decline in area jobs once the old reactors ceased to function. Claims for a new reactor's dual purpose were used to obtain Atomic Energy Commission funding for the construction of that ninth reactor. It would, its backers said, produce plutonium for weapons during the Cold War and generate nuclear energy as a lucrative byproduct. Named the N Reactor, it began producing plutonium in 1963, prompting president John F. Kennedy to pay a visit

By 1973, when the N Reactor had expended roughly half of its operational life, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), a consortium of public power utilities, announced a project to build several new reactors to generate nuclear energy. The project would save the Tri-Cities jobs to be lost when the N Reactor shut down. The WPPSS project created more than 10,000 jobs, but underbudgeting and construction delays caused it to collapse in 1982, the greatest municipal bond default in U.S. history. The Columbia Generating Station, also known as Hanford Two, the only surviving WPPSS project, continues [in 2020] to produce power in Richland. 

Meanwhile, safety concerns threatened Hanford operations. In 1984, Spokane Spokesman-Review reporter Karen Dorn Steele received an anonymous tip from a Hanford engineer, leading her to investigate Hanford's safety. She confirmed that some amount of plutonium had gone unaccounted for and possibly released into the environment. Soon thereafter, another Hanford worker gave a similar tip to The Seattle Times, and the newspaper published articles that supported Steele's findings. The public began to question Hanford and to speak out.

In Spokane, the Rev. William H. Houff, a Unitarian Universalist minister with a PhD in chemistry, cofounded Hanford Education Action League, which then partnered with the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., to request information under the Freedom of Information Act about radioactive waste disposal at Hanford. People in Eastern Washington began to come forward with reports of health afflictions. In response, the Department of Energy in 1986 released 19,000 pages of previously classified documents, revealing the intentional release of toxic Green Run emissions and the extent of radioactive contamination from other routine releases and accidents. The documents revealed how much nuclear waste had been released from Hanford into the environment: the largest amount in recorded history.

From 1951 through 1959, for example, waste drained into the Columbia River at a rate of 7,000 to 20,000 curies per day (a curie is unit of radioactive strength). Waste was stored onsite in tanks both above ground and buried beneath the surface. In 2019, 30 years after the site was decommissioned, the site still held 56 million gallons of toxic waste in underground tanks. Reported The Washington Post in February 2020: "Since the late 1980s, the Energy Department has worked with teams of contractors on the monumental task of dealing with radioactive waste that accumulated over several decades. The massive scale and longevity of the weapons production activities at Hanford mean cleanup efforts are likely to continue for most of the next century" ("Parts of Hanford ..."). 

Hanford's funding began to diminish in the 1980s for other reasons. The N Reactor cost more to run each year than it generated in revenue. Major nuclear-plant catastrophes elsewhere raised alarms, one at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, the other in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986. Particularly troubling was the fact that the Chernobyl reactor's design was similar to the N reactor at Hanford. After the classified documents were released in 1986, the media continued to investigate, and in 1989, the DOE shut down production at Hanford. That same year, the DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington State Department of Ecology signed the Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order, known as the Tri-Party Agreement, laying groundwork for the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study, and for the disposal of nuclear waste being held in storage. 

"Downwinders" Make Their Case

The toxic chemicals Hanford released into the environment slowly exposed nearby residents, many of them farmers, to radioactive chemicals on their lands. The rates of fetal and infant deaths in the Richland area increased. According to author Kate Brown, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who wrote about Hanford in her 2015 book Plutopia, the Hanford area's death rates by 1958 had climbed to four times the rest of the state, and the farmers and indigenous people living downwind had been at high risk of exposure to toxic radiation. The chemicals released by Hanford were shown to travel through the water, through the air, and through living tissues -- and the more that people ingested the plants and animals grown on contaminated land, the more radiation they were likely to accumulate in their bodies.  

By the 1960s, the scientific community was delving deeper into nuclear radiation's effects on human health. As scientists published studies and leaked information to journalists, they drew public attention to Hanford's waste-management practices. The U.S. Public Health Service responded with demands that Hanford reduce the amount of radioactive waste being dumped into the Columbia River. Stricter safeguards forced Hanford to start reporting catastrophic accidents that previously might have been kept secret.

Illnesses, particularly thyroid disease, had increased sharply in the area since Hanford's nuclear production began. In response, Congress in 1988 mandated the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study to determine the radiation exposure of the populace. The study would also determine whether the Hanford site could be held responsible. In 1990, U.S. Energy Secretary James Watkins admitted that the government had put civilians at risk. He called for more health studies. Shortly thereafter, thousands of sick people filed a lawsuit against Hanford's contractors. That lawsuit came to be known as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Litigation, and colloquially as the Downwinders Case. Reparations for the health effects of radiation exposure were at stake, as were land values, which would plummet if lands were shown to be contaminated.

In 1999, researchers announced that they could find no certain correlation between Hanford's emissions and the diseases. Consequently, the court could not determine that Hanford was liable for the documented increase of illnesses, early deaths, and birth defects suffered by plaintiffs and their families. Why? Radioactive iodine poisoning can cause not only thyroid dysfunction and cancer, but other ailments as well. Background rates of illnesses, moreover, proved difficult to calculate, and the lack of sufficient data made it impossible to link the illnesses to radiation exposure alone. Radiation's complex interactions with the environment complicated the investigation. The Downwinders pressed on in court until 2015, when the final plaintiffs either settled or dropped their cases.

The 1989 Tri-Party Agreement promised the Hanford cleanup process would take 30 years and $57 billion to complete, but mismanagement and fraud delayed progress. As of 2019, only three gallons of nuclear waste had been disposed of. The remaining cleanup was estimated to cost $600 billion and take more than 100 years. 

Nuclear Afterlife

Hanford did produce an environmental benefit. Cordoning off hundreds of square miles of land allowed wildlife to flourish undisturbed for decades. After the nuclear reactors were decommissioned, a long legal battle ensued among farmers, conservationists, local tribes, and the Army Corps of Engineers about how best to use the 195,000 acres of protected wildlands. In 2000, under the American Antiquities Act, the Clinton Administration designated the area the Hanford Reach National Monument. The Reach, as it is known, became the largest nationally protected wildlife reserve in Washington after Mount Rainier National Park. It is also the first national monument to be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mule deer, coyotes, bald eagles, great blue herons, white pelicans, elk, beaver, mink, and otters, besides a variety of unique wildlife, make their home on the Reach. Several plants discovered there have been found nowhere else. The sand dunes, sagebrush, and river islands of the Reach provide critical habitat for rare and endangered species of plants, animals, and insects. The Reach also contains the last free-flowing section of the Columbia River, a spawning site for most of the Columbia River's chinook salmon.

Most of the Hanford Reach is open to the public, but access is restricted in some areas for preservation, research, and safety. More than 150 undisturbed prehistoric sites are protected there, including the white clay cliffs that run along the eastern riverbank. Called the White Bluffs, they contain fossils millions of years old. Those cliffs are eroding due to irrigation runoff, and toxic runoff from the old reactors limits access by the public. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy offers free guided tours through parts of Hanford. These tours feature the decommissioned B Reactor, the ongoing cleanup effort, and stories and pictures of the peole who lived there.


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