What happened at the Hanford Nuclear Site? 

The 586‐square mile Hanford site is a legacy of World War II and the Cold War. In 1943, the federal government selected Hanford as a top‐secret site for the Manhattan Project, which called for enriching plutonium for nuclear weapons. Located in a sparsely populated area in south‐central Washington State near the city of Richland, the federal government quickly evacuated and condemned the small towns of White Bluffs and Hanford.[i] The government forcibly relocated the Wanapum Native American Nation and access was denied to all Native Americans who lived along the river, and had actively used the area for fishing, hunting, food gathering, and religious purposes since time immemorial.[ii] 

In August 1945, concentrated plutonium manufactured at Hanford powered the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.[iii] During the war, as many as 51,000 people worked at the site. The U.S. Department of Energy eventually built nine nuclear reactors along the Columbia River to produce plutonium and other materials.[iv] The river provided electricity from the Grand Coulee Dam and abundant water to cool the nuclear reactors.[v] From 1943 to 1989, the federal government and its contractors generated unprecedented volumes of hazardous and radioactive waste.[vi]

The Hanford reach of the Columbia flows 51 miles through the Hanford Nuclear Site, and is home to sturgeon, salmon, and bull trout.

During Hanford’s operation, the federal government deposited hundreds of millions of gallons of radioactive waste directly into the ground in injection wells, trenches, and buried drums, as well as placing waste in 177 large underground tanks.[viii] The government also directly discharged contaminated cooling water into the Columbia River from the nuclear reactors.[ix] 

In 1989, the Hanford mission moved from operation to cleanup. The U.S. Department of Energy (Energy), Washington State, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed the Tri‐Party Agreement, a legally binding contract that set a thirty‐year timetable for Hanford cleanup.[x] Energy failed to meet all of its obligations under the agreement. Despite two decades of cleanup activity, Hanford is still the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere and one of the world’s largest cleanup sites.[xi] 

Due to the slow progress, Washington state and federal agencies reached an agreement in 2009 to amend the Tri‐Party Agreement and push back the cleanup deadline to at least 2047.[xii] By most estimates, cleanup is just one-third of the way complete.[xiii]  

For over two decades, Columbia Riverkeeper has monitored and served as a public resource and advocate on Hanford cleanup. Cleanup success at Hanford is imperative. A healthy Pacific Northwest hinges on a long‐term solution for Hanford and the Columbia River.

Explore “Water’s Walk Through Hanford”

The Hanford Nuclear Site is the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere and the most long lived threat to the health of the Columbia River. Learning about Hanford can often feel overwhelming and confusing, especially for middle and high school youth, but it doesn’t have to be! Columbia Riverkeeper’s new interactive story map, “Water’s Walk Through Hanford,” breaks down some of the most dangerous pollutants and cleanup areas at Hanford, bringing the cleanup to life.

Hanford The Paradox

Get inspired to fight for cleanup at Hanford. Check out a virtual tour of Hanford: Columbia Riverkeeper Water Quality Director explains the paradox of Hanford’s nuclear legacyand the unintentional byproduct: a rare environment teeming with life. 

A Place Worth Fighting For, Hanford: The Hidden Beauty

[i] U.S. Department of Energy, Hanford Website: http://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/HanfordBeforetheReactors
[ii] U.S. Department of Energy, Hanford Website: http://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/HanfordBeforetheReactors
[iii] U.S. Department of Energy, Hanford Website: http://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/Famous/Einstein
[iv] Summary of the Hanford Site Environmental Report for Calendar Year 2008, PNNL‐18427‐SUM (Sept.2009). http://www.pnl.gov/main/publications/external/technical_reports/PNNL‐18427sum.pdf.
[v] Id.
[vi] Hansen, Laura. 2000. Radioactive Waste Contamination of Soil and Groundwater at the Hanford Site. Principles of Environmental Toxicology. Also See Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Rogovin Report, estimate of 13 million curies from Three Mile Island.
[vii] U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO‐06‐77R, Columbia River Contamination from the Hanford Site (Nov.4,2005).
[viii] Washington Dept. of Health. Hanford Health Information Network. http://www.doh.wa.gov/hanford/glossary.html
[ix] U.S. Government Accountability Office, DOE’s Efforts to Protect the Columbia River from Contamination Could Be Further Strengthened, GAO‐06‐1018at1 (Aug.2006).
[x] Oregon Department of Energy, Hanford Cleanup: The First 20 Years at i (July 2009).
[xi] Hanford Advisory Board et al. Report of the Exposure Scenarios Taskforce at 7 (Dec.2002), http://www.hanford.gov/files.cfm/HAB_TaskForceFinalReport.pdf.
[xii] For information on amendments to the Tri‐Party Agreement, visit the Department of Energy’s Website at: http://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/TriParty.Alsoseehttp://www.energy.gov/news2009/7786.htm
[xiii] Id.