Demystifying Nuclear Power: Hanford Nuclear Reservation Belches a Deadly Warning

Photo Credit: Britannica

Photo Credit: Britannica

by Sue Prent, Researcher/Blogger

Located in Washington State, near the majestic Columbia River, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a site of grimly historic significance, linked to the bombing of Nagasaki and the Cold War nuclear arms race. The site was chosen in 1943 because its ample supply of water could be used to cool the nine atomic reactors designed to make Plutonium for A bombs. That water was drawn from the majestic Columbia River that further downstream creates the border between Washington and Oregon. 

Now, in a terrible irony, Hanford’s radioactive legacy threatens a blight of epic proportion to the fertile Pacific Northwest. Physicians for Social Responsibility calls Hanford the most contaminated place in the Western world.

I take what’s happening at the Hanford (nuclear waste management) site somewhat personally, not nearly so personally as do my sister and her family, who live in Portland, Oregon, or the rest of the regional population, for whom the river valley has long provided unequalled recreational opportunity, natural beauty, and some of the richest vineyards in North America. Did you know that the Columbia is a premier U.S. destination for windsurfers?

My mother, Mary Lee Stewart, was born under the shadow of the painted hills, in John Day, Oregon. Being a child of the desert, she must have thought she had died and gone to paradise when, as a young woman, she first set eyes on the lush Columbia River Gorge.

On our few trips from Chicago to visit her Oregon family, Mother took us to the beach and on nature walks along the Columbia River. We fell in love with the wild beauty of the region, and as an adult, my sister was irresistibly drawn to live there. Little did my sister realize that, on a similar timeline and shrouded in official secrecy, the Department of Energy’s wartime pursuit of Plutonium-239 for nuclear weapons was winding down dangerously close to the sharp westward turn that the Columbia River takes along the Washington/Oregon border before its final journey to the Pacific Ocean. 

The Hanford Site had provided plutonium for “Fat Man,” the second atomic bomb, which was dropped on Nagasaki in August of 1945, three days after the bombing of Hiroshima. The Site quietly continued to produce weapons-grade plutonium for several decades after that, carelessly mismanaging liquid wastes from the process.

By 1986, when the disaster at Chernobyl reignited public fear [or anxiety] about radiation, the federal government’s Department of Energy (DOE) was forced to reveal the vast extent of toxic radioactive contamination at the site. By then it had been operating, with little thought to the natural environment, for more than 40 years. 

The DOE’s response to the dire situation was to end atomic weapons production at Hanford and designate it as a high-level nuclear waste repository. Not surprisingly, this did not sit well with the people of the Pacific Northwest, for whom the pristine condition of their region has always been a source of great pride and economic benefit.

Under public pressure and scrutiny, Congress allowed the state of Washington authority to regulate the Hanford site. It was then that the over-arching mission of Hanford changed, belatedly, to clean-up and environmental management, neither of which seems to have been at all successful. 

Several years ago, in its publication, Hanford & the River, the Columbia Riverkeeper explained the unique relationship between the Columbia River and the nuclear parasite attached to its banks:

The Columbia River is our nation’s second largest river and historically home to the largest salmon runs on Earth. The Hanford Reach of the Columbia flows 51 miles through the Hanford nuclear site and is home to sturgeon, salmon, and bull trout. 

Hanford is the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere, where the United States dumped billions of gallons of radioactive waste on the banks of the Columbia and into the river itself. Today, waste in unlined cribs and trenches has spread into large pollution plumes and dozens of storage tanks have leaked high‐level nuclear waste. Vast areas of groundwater are poisoned and, in some places, flowing into the Columbia River.

Those ‘billions of gallons’ of now radioactive water had originally been drawn from the innocent Columbia River, and were the reason the fateful decision was made to locate the Hanford nuclear weapons complex besides its rushing flow.

On its website, the Department of Energy (DOE) belatedly acknowledges the problems at Hanford, including existence of underground ‘plumes’ of radioactive contaminants resulting from careless disposal of waste directly into the environment that have "long since soaked into the soil on the Site… A ‘plume’ is kind of like an underground river where the contaminants join with the water that exists beneath the surface of the Earth. Many of these plumes move in varying speeds and move toward the Columbia River." 

Alarming? Absolutely! The DOE report goes on to detail several experimental efforts at mitigation which are being attempted on the Site, none of which sound particularly promising. The reader is left with the unsettling feeling that there is no good news possible in Hanford’s environmental future.

On April 18 of this year, it was reported that more than eight inches of highly radioactive liquid waste was standing in the exterior annulus after leaking from one of the double-walled tanks at the Hanford site, each of which holds one-million gallons of this deadly waste. The ‘annulus’ is the secondary shell surrounding each tank, as an added precaution against what were thought to be highly unlikely leaks. There are three more of those gigantic double-walled tanks (AY-102) on the site.

Since the inner chamber was believed to be virtually breach-proof, the outer shell of the tank was not fitted with any filtration or exhaust system. These measures become essential, in the event of a leak, in order to deal with the dangerous radioactive gases generated by standing waste.

Not only does this situation represent an explosion hazard of unimaginable proportions, it also creates incredibly hazardous working conditions for employees and contractors attempting to mitigate the nightmare [tinderbox?]. Consequently, even after donning full respiratory safety gear, some emergency workers have become quite ill while attempting to cope with this ticking time-bomb.

Will the outer shell succumb under the stress created by the unanticipated pool of radioactive waste building up inside? No one knows. The DOE and its waste storage designers, manufacturers, and consultants never anticipated such mechanical failures.

In the weeks since the leak was discovered, radiation levels have spiked to what is officially described as “elevated risk”. And, when the material periodically ‘burps’ radiation, workers laboring to bring the situation under control are forced to make a hasty evacuation. So far 47 workers have required evaluation for symptoms of illness related to vapor inhalation.

Somewhere midway between my sister’s home in Portland and the Hanford nuclear site, a little more than 200 miles away, lies the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, the premier wind-surfing destination in America. Hiking the Gorge has been a must-do on my visits to Oregon, and nowhere in America is the lush abundance of nature more spectacular!

The questions are: For how much longer will we have this place of natural treasure? And, is it, even now, becoming unwise to engage in recreational activities on the upper Columbia River?

What about the valuable agriculture of the region? The Columbia River Gorge represents some of the finest wine country in North America, clearly rivaling that of California. Already, toxic leachate from the Hanford Site that was never properly contained over its operational decades has unquestionably reached the Columbia, undoubtedly with more on its way.

According to the State of Washington Department of Ecology:

To monitor and track plumes heading toward the Columbia River, more than 1,000 groundwater and soil testing wells have been installed and are sampled on a regular basis. We also have installed groundwater treatment systems to control further migration of plumes. These plumes are large, complex, and lie at a depth sometimes exceeding 250 feet. The success of the effort depends on the effectiveness of existing treatment, the use of innovative technologies, and continued effort. 

With these new releases indicating a failure of tank containment at the site, one has to wonder what the future looks like for the Columbia River Valley, and whether or not its rich natural and economic resources will still be available for future generations to enjoy. 

Those questions assume what is the very least alarming perspective on Hanford. 

Remember those ominous ‘burps’? They could signal an approaching crisis. 

Even before this latest burst of bad news, some have dubbed Hanford, “America’s Fukushima,” remarking on the very real risk of a radioactive explosion erupting from the unstable toxic soup contained therein, creating an event that would necessitate evacuation of much of the densely settled Pacific Northwest.

That’s my family they’re talking about.


The Hanford Site has recently been declared a National Park for its historic significance in connection with the Manhattan project. Long before radioactive waste became the big story at Hanford, it already had a shadowed past.

Here is a fascinating article discussing some lesser known facts about the people who who were involuntarily displaced at Hanford by the Manhattan Project, and the African-American laborers who were brought in to work there through the war years in a segregated environment, then encouraged to return where they came from.