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Hanford History

How did we get where we are?

Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the western world. Hanford's radioactive and toxic wastes pose serious health and environmental threats. They are a legacy of international tension and nuclear weapons production in the last century. The challenge of Hanford today is a tapestry woven from this complex history. The tapestry is colored by four principal threads that still interfere with cleanup efforts.

The first thread is the extreme secrecy and isolation of this government project starting in 1943 in the midst of World War II. In most cases the Hanford workers did not know that their job was making the plutonium for atomic bombs until the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Security remained very tight during the decades of the Cold War. The government did not reveal a number of significant health-related events until forced to do so in the late 1980s by citizen exercise of the Freedom of Information Act. Although highly sophisticated radiation monitoring was performed throughout the history of Hanford, the government did not tell the public the details, repeatedly assuring them that everything was safe.

A second thread is the Hanford workers' pride in their work and a strong sense of community that tolerated no criticism from insiders who knew of dangers or safety violations. Rejection, isolation and denial still meet whistleblowers' efforts, and local pride still clamors for "production" jobs at Hanford.

The third thread is the slowly evolving understanding of radiobiology and its acceptance by political figures. For example, initial hopes that the soil would hold wastes from leaching into the groundwater were eventually proven wrong. The Chernobyl disaster alerted the public that serious accidents could occur at Hanford. The resulting contamination of the Columbia and its basin would affect the population of the entire Northwest. Increasing understanding of the effects of relatively low level radiation on DNA and the long lag time before such radiation effects are apparent in humans and animals has further focused public desire to safely contain the highly toxic nuclear wastes at Hanford.

The fourth thread is the tangled, often incestuous relationship between the US Government as represented by its local agency, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the large corporations doing most of the contracted work at Hanford. Often the government awarded contracts on bids involving lowest cost estimates that have led to disappointing progress, unsafe procedures and contractor turnover. General Electric followed Dupont, then Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), then Rockwell, then Westinghouse, and currently Fluor Daniel and Bechtel. Large bonuses for reaching or exceeding projected volumes of production of plutonium for our warheads lured corporations into giving a very low priority to safety measures and control of radioactive waste. The termination in 2000 of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. for mammoth estimated cost increases for glassification (vitrification) of high level wastes is but the latest example of Hanford's contractor problems.

Under the pressures of World War II, the US government had sought a remote area providing abundant water and power, and allowing for extreme secrecy for the production of plutonium for the atomic bomb. The current Hanford site on the Columbia River appeared ideal. In early 1943 inhabitants were evicted with token compensation, the government quickly moved in 50,000 workers, and two separations facilities and three reactors were in operation just 18 months after ground was broken. With the sense of urgency generated by World War II, secrecy was paramount. Wastes were dumped in the soil and the river, and large volumes of high-level waste were placed in huge single-shell storage tanks with the assumption that the wastes could be taken care of properly after the war.

As Cold War production pressures continued to build, the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was enacted to build nuclear weapons in total secrecy, without any local, state or even congressional oversight. By the 1960s nine Hanford reactors were producing plutonium. Still there was no long-term plan for safe waste containment. Leakage of high-level radioactive wastes from the single-shelled tanks was already suspected by 1956. Low-level waste continued to be put into drums or open trenches, often mixed with other toxic wastes.

The true situation at Hanford remained hidden from the public. The community faith in "good jobs, good pay, and a good cause" had long fostered an emphasis on production and a neglect of safety. Anyone critical could expect immediate and crushing reprisal from the "Hanford community" and the corporations. Only after a particularly brave inspector and whistleblower leaked information to the press and a very revealing series of expose articles appeared in the newspapers did any meaningful changes occur. The contractor, Rockwell, like the US government before it, kept secret the reports of many breaches and breakdowns, and the Department of Energy failed to maintain the strict oversight required of it by law.

What led to the cleanup effort?

By the mid-1980s, the Freedom of Information Act allowed an alerted public to review Hanford documents from the 1940s and 1950s. These documents revealed that incredible contamination of the environment and exposure of large numbers of citizens to dangerous amounts of radioactive nuclides had occurred in Hanford's earlier years. By 1957 eight plutonium production reactors dumped a daily average of 50,000 curies of radioactive material into the Columbia. Perhaps the most dramatic of these events was the "Green Run" in December 1949, when 8,000 curies of iodine-131 were intentionally released from ("green") nuclear fuel with only a short cooling period. This secret release was part of a US intelligence effort to develop capability for detecting Russian plutonium production. Although the plume covered an area of 200 by 40 miles, no warnings were given and no follow-up of area residents was conducted. By comparison, only 15 -24 curies of iodine-131 were released at Three Mile Island.

The public in Washington and Oregon became concerned enough to demand action in cleaning up Hanford. Three agencies, the Washington State Department of Ecology, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the US Department of Energy (DOE) entered into The Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order, known as the Tri-Party Agreement. This historic agreement, hammered out in 1989, set out schedules and tasks to accomplish cleanup of the site over the next 30 years. While some milestones have been met since 1989, the agreement has suffered repeated schedule and cost overruns by the DOE.

The plan for the high-level tank wastes at Hanford was to put them into molten glass that would then cool in steel containers (vitrification). This process of containing materials that will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years is used at other sites in this country and abroad. But at Hanford no vitrification plant has been constructed nor has one gram of material been vitrified. When the DOE has failed to reach cleanup deadlines, at times the EPA and the WA Department of Ecology have responded by granting extensions that exempt the DOE from fines for non-compliance with the Tri-Party Agreement. The delays in emptying leaking tanks on time finally led WA State Governor Locke to threaten to sue DOE for breaking Tri-Party Agreement commitments.

The controversy about the proposal to restart the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) has distracted attention from Hanford's huge legacy of nuclear waste. Restarting the reactor would add new waste streams. The FFTF started operations in 1982 as part of the national breeder reactor program, but the program was shut down while it was still under construction. Ever since, this has been a facility in search of a mission. While the DOE ordered the FFTF to be shut down completely in 1993, local community interests pressed for it to remain on standby at the cost of over $40 million per year. Early in 2001 and again at the end of the year after yet another review, the DOE decided to permanently close the facility. WPSR and other public interest groups continue to urge compliance with this decision.

Additional forces confound Hanford cleanup. If material for the recently proposed mini-nukes were produced at Hanford, the volume and radioactivity of waste would increase. Wastes at Hanford will also increase because the DOE has selected the site as a major waste repository for low-level radioactive and toxic chemical wastes from other DOE facilities around the nation. The serious public and environmental health dangers of Hanford will only be mitigated when control and containment of its nuclear waste is its sole mission.

Suggested Further Reading

  • Columbia River United (CRU), Hanford and the River, 1997
  • D'Antonio, Michael, Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America's Nuclear Arsenal, 1993, New York: Crown Publishers
  • Gerber, Michelle, On the Home Front, 1992, Lincoln, NE: Univ. of NE Press
  • Loeb, Paul, Nuclear Culture: Living and Working in the World's Largest Atomic Complex, 1986, (2nded.) Philadelphia: New Society Publishers
  • Oregon Office of Energy, Hanford Cleanup: The First Ten Years, 1999, OOE Safety Division.
  • U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) Office on Environmental Management, Linking Legacies: Connecting the Cold War Nuclear Weapons Production Processes to Their Environmental Consequences, 1997, Washington, DC: USDOE
  • USDOE Office of Environmental Management, Closing the Circle on Splitting of the Atom, 1996, Washington, DC: USDOE