Hanford Nuclear Bomb Site: Triumph and Disaster

Government Still Trying to Clean Up Site of First Nuclear Bomb

Radioactive Waste Cleanup Continues At Hanford Nuclear Site. Jeff T. Green/Getty Images

Several years ago, a popular country song spoke of “making the best out of a bad situation,” which is pretty much what people near the Hanford nuclear bomb factory have been doing since World War II.

In 1943, about 1,200 people lived along the Columbia River in the southeastern Washington state farming towns of Richland, White Bluffs, and Hanford. Today, this Tri-Cities area is home to over 120,000 people, most of whom would probably live, work, and spend money somewhere else were it not for what the federal government allowed to accumulated at the 560 square mile Hanford Site from 1943 to 1991, including:

  • 56 million gallons of highly radioactive nuclear waste stored in 177 underground tanks, of which at least 68 leak;
  • 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel sitting in -- but sometimes leaking from -- two surface pools only a few hundred feet from the Columbia River;
  • 120 square miles of contaminated ground water; and
  • 25 tons of deadly plutonium that must be disposed of and kept under constant armed guard.

And all of that remains at the Hanford Site today, despite the efforts of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to undertake the most intensive environmental cleanup project in history.

Brief Hanford History

Around Christmas of 1942, far from sleepy Hanford, World War II was grinding on. Enrico Fermi and his team completed the world’s first nuclear chain reaction, and the decision was made to build the atomic bomb as a weapon to end the war with Japan. The top-secret effort took the name, “Manhattan Project.”

In January of 1943, the Manhattan Project got under way at Hanford, Oak Ridge in Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Hanford was chosen as the site where they would make plutonium, a deadly byproduct of the nuclear reaction process and main ingredient of the atomic bomb.

Just 13 months later, Hanford’s first reactor went online.

  And the end of World War II would soon follow. But, that was far from the end for the Hanford Site, thanks to the Cold War.

Hanford Fights the Cold War

The years following the end of World War II saw a deterioration of relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In 1949, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb and the nuclear arms race -- the Cold War -- began. Instead of decommissioning the existing one, eight new reactors were built at Hanford.

From 1956 to 1963, Hanford’s production of plutonium reached its peak. Things got scary. Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, in a 1959 visit, told the American people, “your grandchildren will live under communism.” When Russian missiles appeared in Cuba in 1962, and the world came within minutes of nuclear war, America redoubled its efforts toward nuclear deterrence. From 1960 to 1964, our nuclear arsenal tripled, and Hanford’s reactors hummed day and night.

Finally, in late 1964, President Lyndon Johnson decided that our need for plutonium had decreased and ordered all but one Hanford reactor shutdown. From 1964 - 1971 eight of nine reactors were slowly shut down and prepared for decontamination and decommissioning. The remaining reactor was converted to produce electricity, as well as plutonium.

In 1972, the DOE added atomic energy technology research and development to the Hanford Site’s mission.

Hanford Since the Cold War

In 1990, Michail Gorbachev, Soviet President, pushed for improved relations between the superpowers and greatly reduced Russian arms development. The peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall followed shortly, and on September 27, 1991, the U.S. Congress officially declared the end of the Cold War. No more defense-related plutonium would ever be produced at Hanford.

The Cleanup Begins

During its defense production years, the Hanford Site was under strict military security and never subject to outside oversight. Due to improper disposal methods, like dumping 440 billion gallons of radioactive liquid directly onto the ground, Hanford’s 650 square miles is still considered one of the most toxic places on earth.

The U.S. Department of Energy took over operations at Hanford from the defunct Atomic Energy Commission in 1977 with three main goals a part of its Strategic Plan:

  • Clean it up! The Environmental Mission: DOE recognizes that Hanford won’t be “like it was before” for centuries, if ever. But, they have established interim and long-term goals to the satisfaction of the impacted parties;
  • Never again! The Science & Technology Mission: DOE, along with private contractors are developing technology in a wide range of clean-energy related areas. Many of the preventative and remedial environmental methods used today came from Hanford; and
  • Support the people! The Tri-Party Agreement: From the beginning of Hanford’s recovery era, DOE has worked to build and diversify the area’s economy, while encouraging intense involvement with and input from private citizens and the Indian Nations.

So, How’s It Going Now in Hanford?

Hanford’s cleanup phase will probably continue until at least 2030 when many of DOE’s long-term environmental goals will have been met. Until then, the cleanup goes carefully on, one day at a time.

Research and development of new energy-related and environmental technologies now share an almost equal level of activity.

Over the years, the U.S. Congress has appropriated (spent) more than $13.1 million for grants and direct aid to the Hanford area communities to fund projects designed to build the local economy, diversify the workforce, and prepare for coming reductions in federal involvement in the area.

Since 1942, the U.S. Government has been present in Hanford. As late as 1994, over 19,000 residents were federal employees or 23 percent of the area’s total workforce. And, in a very real sense, a terrible environmental disaster became the driving force behind the growth, perhaps even the survival, of the Hanford area.