I can vividly recall the exact moment I realized how bad it really is. As kids we joked about Hanford and the rampant mutations that plagued the surrounding areas. However, I simply thought of these stories as urban legend. Children have a tendency to do such things, stories of two headed animals that glowed in the dark, three-eyed fish in the Columbia River that look like Blinky from the Simpsons, and other such nonsense were exchanged right along with stories of Bigfoot and UFOs. But much to my dismay, while flipping channels I landed on PBS where they were showing footage of a farmer holding a three-legged chick. The camera cut to a calf with two heads. Then, the narrator reveals that this farm is less than 20 miles from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. I couldn't believe it. Evidently mutations of this sort are common.
Hanford is the textbook example of how not to handle radiological material. In fact, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is considered to be the most contaminated place in America. (The title of "The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet" goes to the Mayak laboratory in Russia, Hanford's Soviet counterpart.) Some even believe it is worse than the Chernobyl site, however, the contamination at Hanford has been done over a long span of time rather than all at once as it did when the core of the Ukrainian reactor blew its top. Hanford is the oldest nuclear site and the years have not been kind.
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is located on 360,000 acres of land in southeastern Washington near the farming community of Richland. (Actually, the area is commonly referred to as the Tri-Cities to describe the three townships that are in close proximity to each other; Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick.) Ancient man settled this area some twelve thousand years ago. They inhabited the region until they were expelled by white settlers who desired the land for farming in the latter half on the 19th century. These farmers themselves were later expelled by the Federal Government who desired the land to help with the war effort. Hanford was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project and was constructed by the US Department of Energy and the DuPont Corporation. Hanford housed the world's first full size nuclear reactor, known as B Reactor. Seven more reactors at the site would soon follow and eventually a ninth was built.
Though most think of nuclear reactors as electrical power plants, the purpose for the reactors at Hanford was to create fuel for nuclear weapons. The Hanford B Reactor created the weapons-grade plutonium used in the world's first nuclear explosion and in Fat Man, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. Hanford's foundry was put to further use in manufacturing plutonium for the nuclear arsenal of the United States during the Cold War. Electricity was not produced at the Hanford Site until the ninth reactor as brought on line in the 1960s. Hanford's role in ending World War II as well as one-upping the Russians during the Cold War has been enthusiastically heralded by the federal nuclear community as well as local historians.
However, Hanford has a much darker side. With a Freedom of Information request in 1986, the Department of Energy released 19,000 pages of documents that exposed the intentional release of radioactive material into the environment from the Hanford Site. From 1944 to 1957 the venting of radioactive gases was a matter of routine. During this period 725,000 curies of iodine-131 were allowed into the atmosphere. Iodine-131, just one of the radioactive partials release, is a big component in nuclear fallout. (As a comparison, the accident at Three Mile Island released 20 curies of iodine-131 and the meltdown at Chernobyl released 50 million curies.) The largest single release at Hanford occurred in 1949 during a top secret Air Force experiment called the "Green Run" test. They intentionally increased the amount of radiation being release tremendously in order to test nuclear monitoring equipment that would be used to spy on the Soviet Union's atomic weapons program.
This catastrophe did not simply stop with atmospheric contamination. Nuclear waste that was not ruled highly radioactive was simply dumped into the earth. It is estimated that more than 440 billion gallons of waste was discarded into the soil. These practices continued from 1944 until the last of the original eight reactors was shut down in 1971. The waste that was considered highly radioactive is stored in underground tanks. Of the nearly 60 million gallons, over time, more than a million gallons of highly radioactive waste have seeped from the containers into the ground.
The scope of the contamination is much farther reaching than the confines of the reservation itself. Fallout from the atmospheric releases fell on farm land contaminating fruit and grain crops and pasture grazed by dairy cows. This produce and milk went to market and was consumed. Liquid waste found its way into the groundwater and local rivers contaminating drinking water and fisheries. The river most affected by contamination is the Columbia. Though contaminated groundwater does enter the Columbia (estimated at 40 cubic feet per second), it is only a fraction of a percent of the river's flow and is significantly diluted.
While the reactors were producing, however, Hanford took its toll on the river. In 1949, due to an equipment failure, 28 pounds of uranium mixed in radioactive sludge accidentally spilled into the Columbia. But most of the Columbia's contamination came by matter of routine. Because of the intense heat generated by nuclear fission massive amounts of water was needed to cool the reactors. This water was pumped directly from Columbia River. After letting it sit in tanks a few days to reduce its radioactivity the contaminated water was pumped back into the river taking quantities of Sodium-24, Manganese-56 and other radiological material with it, which were found in shellfish as far as the Pacific coast of Washington and Oregon.
It is thought that Hanford now has a harmful sphere of influence at a radius of 50 miles. But this sphere does not account for animal migratory patterns. Salmon pass Hanford every year, traveling upstream on their way to spawn, downstream on their way to the ocean. Rocky Mountain Elk and Mule Deer migrate to the site during the colder winter months. Migrating birds, such as Canadian Geese, also pass through the area on their biannual journeys.
In 1989, only a year after the final reactor at Hanford was shut down, the US Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington State Department of Ecology decided to undertake what they called the world's largest cleanup effort to stop further environmental contamination from Hanford. Still, the process has been inundated with problems from the "how" to the "how much". It is estimated 50 billion dollars will be needed over 30 years for adequate containment. Part of this solution requires a processing plant (currently under construction at Hanford) that will turn the liquid waste into an obsidian-like glass. Though the glass itself is highly radioactive it will be easier to store and less likely to leak. Once this unique facility is in place, highly radioactive waste from other sites will be trucked to Washington for processing.
Hanford History and Information about Releases of Radioactive Materials into the Environment: 1944-1972
Characterization of Mixed Wastes Resulting from Fuel Fabrication at the Hanford Site
Hanford Federal Nuclear Facility
Summary of the Hanford Site Environmental Report 2000: Environmental Research and Monitoring
Columbia River and Hanford Groundwater Quality