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From Lethal Weapons to Lethal Waste...

The Hanford site is located in southeast washington
The Hanford site, located in southeastern Washington State, is now considered to be the most contaminated site in the western hemisphere. Since its conception in 1943, Hanford has evolved from producing plutonium and Tritium for the US nuclear weapons arsenal, to dealing with the radioactive wastes that were generated by those operations.

Within its first 30 years of production, multitudes more radiation was released into the air, soil, and water than Soviet officials say escaped at Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history. In fact, as much as 450 billion gallons of contaminated wastes were dumped into the soils at Hanford, including a million gallons of liquid High-Level Nuclear Wastes. Furthermore, over a third of the 177 underground storage tanks have leaked radioactive and chemically toxic solutions into the ground.

This situation has become even more urgent as these wastes have reached Hanford's groundwater and are currently moving towards the Columbia River. Moreover, other waste dumpsites are leaking wastes that have already reached the River. As over one and a half million people rely on the Columbia River for clean water for drinking, agriculture, fishing and recreation, the groundwater contamination is of critical concern.

The Department of Energy is responsible for cleaning up Hanford. They estimate that it will take at least fifty years and cost in the tens of billions of dollars to do so. Hopefully, Hanford can wait that long.
Hanford occupies 560 square miles.
  • When: 1943 Construction began
  • What: Nuclear weapons facility, including nine nuclear reactors, producing plutonium for US nuclear weapons arsenal
  • Why: Manhattan Project/ Cold War
  • 1st plutonium-production reactor that fueled the bomb dropped on Nagasaki
  • Peak years of weapons material production: 1960s
  • Who: Operated by Department of Energy; Previously, Atomic Energy Commission
  • Legacy: World's largest clean-up project
The implosion-type weapon detonated at Alamagordo
Hanford construction began in 1943 as a result of the top-secret Manhattan Project. Out of fear that Hitler's Germany might invent nuclear weapons first, the US called upon vast resources and the best scientific minds in the world. It took them less than three years to create the first working atomic bomb.

Hanford was the producer of the plutonium that fueled the 1st test explosion in Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945.The same plutonium also powered Fat Man, the five-ton atomic bomb that exploded over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Although the atomic bombs dropped on Japan marked the end of World War II, the production of nuclear weapons in the U.S. continued. As the Soviet Union began developing an atomic bomb during the Cold War, the Hanford site expanded.
The greatest increase in plutonium production occurred during the most intense years of the early Cold War, from 1947 to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. By 1964, nine plutonium production reactors were operating at Hanford. Hanford quickly slowed down and began to diversify eight of the nine reactors were closed down between 1964 and 1971. All weapons material production was halted in the late 1980s.
Many farmers were driven from their land to make room for Hanford
The US government chose to invest billions of dollars in three sites to accomplish the goals of the Manhattan Project. Hanford, Washington was chosen, (along with Los Alamos, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee), because it was:
  • Far from major populations, yet near a railroad.
  • A source of sand and gravel for building reactors
  • Close to the Columbia river, which provided water for cooling reactors and electrical power from the Grand Coulee dam
Four native american tribes call the Hanford reach their home. Rates for cancer, stillbirths, and birth defects among tribal members are far beyond the national average.
Hanford has great cultural and religious significance to the Native Americans in the region.
  • The Yakima Indian Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation , the Wanapum, and the Nez Pierce Tribe have ancestral homelands in Hanford.
  • There are more than 120 archaeological sites along Hanford Reach
  • Tribes have rights of access to and cultural use of lands inside of the Hanford Reservation and along the River, due to treaties with the U.S. government.
In this recent photo, workers oversee the dumping of cardboard boxes filled with radioactive waste into a hole. These traditional methods of waste disposal plague the Hanford site.
practices of Hanford's engineers, coupled with inadequate storage facilities, are the reason why Hanford has become the world's largest clean-up project. The waste treatment of the past, included:
  • 450 billion gallons of mildly radioactive wastes (like cooling water that is often mixed with hazardous wastes) were dumped into the environment
  • Over one million gallons of liquid High-Level Nuclear Wastes were discharged or have leaked from faulty underground storage tanks (69 of the 177 tanks have failed so far).
  • Solid wastes (including machinery and spent reactors) were moved to underground tunnels.
  • Other nuclear waste was dumped into unlined trenches.
  • Plus, numerous accidental spills and releases occurred.
Weekly radiation checks in a mobile lab were commonplace for Hanford area youth during the 1960s
The DOE has not only received much criticism for its waste treatment strategies, but its mismanagement of Hanford workers and the general public. As the only federal agency exempt from independent oversight, the DOE has done their best to try and cover up their mistakes:
Green Run
A 1949 government experiment that intentionally released radioactive iodine into the air for two days. The primary purpose of the experiment was to study Soviet monitoring systems. Extensive sampling over the region was also done. The worst vegetation contamination was found near Hanford, an area that contains hundreds of square miles of farmland.
The sampling also showed that radiation levels higher than government-established limits reached as far north as Spokane and as far south as California. Although this was one of the biggest releases of radiation releases to ever occur at an atomic facility, the Green Run was kept secret until the 1980s.
Close calls
Close calls that resulted in worker exposures also occurred at Hanford, including Tank 105-A, 106-C and Tank 101-SY.
Unpredictable fluctuations in these tank's liquid-level and temperatures created volatile conditions that resulted in radioactive gases released into the atmosphere, leaks, and unstable conditions that could have resulted in a much larger, lethal explosion.
A cleanup safety worker inspects the destruction at tank A-109
Plutonium Finishing Plant Explosion
In 1997, Tank A-109 blew it's top, spewing dangerous fumes and flushing plutonium residue outdoors. The response to the explosion demonstrated DOE's lack of preparation: conflicting, improper orders were given to workers, respirators were found to be dysfunctional and off-site notification didn't occur until three hours after the explosion (instead of the mandated 15 minutes), among other things.
As a result, nine exposed workers carried home contamination in their clothes, hair and car, endangering both themselves and their families. The DOE was fined $138,000 for the emergency response and for improperly storing chemical wastes.
The whistleblowers at Hanford most often consist of scientists and engineers that are concerned with improper operations.
Senior Scientist Sonja Anderson had her career destroyed because she warned Congress about cover-ups of tank waste practices.
Engineer Inez Austin nearly lost her job because she refused to approve an unsafe practice that could have easily led to underground tank explosions.
Geophysicist John Brodeur lost his job for revealing problems with the monitoring of contamination of the ground beneath the tanks.
Clean-up Inadequacies
According to the General Accounting Office's 1998 study, the DOE's understanding of how the waste moves through the vadose zone is inadequate.
Furthermore, the DOE lacks a strategy for investigating the zone and has failed to recognize their own experts' advice. As a result, the DOE's process of removing high-level wastes from tanks will contribute even more contamination to the soil that is already contaminated from past leaks, according to the GAO.
This tractor, like many from of day, had a tracking number for radiological testing purposes.
Many of the foods we eat come from farms in the vacinity of, or downriver from Hanford.
"Downwinders" from the Tri-Cities to Spokane are some of the most irradiated citizens outside of the former Soviet Union. They have reported health problems such as skin sores, respiratory problems, thyroid problems, miscarriages and cancer. Its sad that such modern medications such as amoxicillin were not available back then.
Hanford's public relations department has spent years covering up the problems that have been reported regarding radiation levels in downwinders' communities.
Although high levels of radioactivity were found in Columbia River fish in the 1940s, the information was ordered classified and no public warning was issued.
A passionate crowd questions the Fast Flux Test Facility
Until recently, the DOE's operations at Hanford have been shrouded in a "culture of secrecy" in which the DOE neglected to inform the public about their current operations and plans for the future. Public participation has played a crucial rule in reforming DOE's practices, and helping to get Hanford's clean up moving in the right direction. Some of the accomplishments include:
  • 1986: 20,000 documents that had been kept secret are released to the public.
  • 1989: Tri-Party Agreement is signed by the DOE, Washington State and the EPA for clean-up of Hanford.
  • 1989: Environmental public interest groups begin working together as the Hanford Public Interest Network (HPIN).
  • 1989: The Hanford Dose Reconstruction Project begins to look into the health impacts of Iodine 131 releases.
  • 1992: HOANW sues to stop illegal discharge of 2 billion gallons of untreated liquid wastes, including cooling waters containing hazardous wastes.
  • 1994-95: DOE actually stops discharging these untreated liquid wastes.
  • 1994: Hanford Advisory Board is established, consisting of 32 stakeholder positions from around the region that advise DOE on clean-up.
  • 1995: The Dept. of Ecology, the EPA and the U.S. DOE agree to form a Hanford Tank Waste Task Force to advise on reprioritizing the Hanford Clean-Up Agreement.
  • 1996: Public involvement in the US DOE Budget Prioritization process leads to the implementation of annual public hearings on budget.
  • 2000: FFTF nuclear reactor is deactivated, preventing the generation of more nuclear waste, and rerouting the $30 million a year that it cost to run, to the clean-up project.
  • Hundreds of concerned citizens participate annually in public hearings to give input into Hanford's priorities.
  • HOANW leads effort to inform and involve the public about these and similar hearings every year.


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