A few weeks ago I visited the Hanford Site in Washington State. As with my Christmas vacation visit to EBR-1, which you can read about here, I conned my mom into getting up well before dawn and driving several hours to an attraction probably of interest only to me. And you guys. Maybe.

The Hanford Site is a mostly shuttered nuclear production complex that was part of the Manhattan Project, but you may know it better as that super contaminated area in the Northwest US where there’s a whole lot of nuclear mess. The folks at the Hanford Site created the plutonium used in the devices discharged in the Trinity test, Fat Man (the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, ending WWII) and another 60,000 or so nuclear weapons. So they were busy.

Let’s take a look at the Hanford Site’s origin story.

In 1939, World War II was stomping across Europe, but the US was still pretty isolated from the conflict. Then some German scientists figured out how to split the uranium atom, which meant that they could possibly harness the power of atomic energy (fission!) for the first time, and we figured we should get our nuclear house in order. We started to worry that the Nazis maybe had an atomic bomb, or were at least thinking about it, or maybe it wasn’t the bomb we were so worried about, but the idea that they may be able to do something awesome (in the real sense of the word, not the totally tubular sense of the word), before we could. The US felt more and more pressure to join the just gestating nuclear arms race until the US government finally roped most of the research being done in US colleges and industrial labs around the country under the Manhattan Project umbrella.

The US Army Corps of Engineers was placed in charge of the Manhattan Project. The Army Crops recruited the DuPont Company (of later House of the Future fame) as lead contractor. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, had already been selected as the main Manhattan Project site, and the folks at DuPont recommended that the plutonium and uranium production facilities necessary to the project, (plutonium is essentially extracted from uranium after a very long and radioactive process) be located far away from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and meet the following criteria:

  • A large and remote tract of land.
  • Space for laboratory facilities that were at least 8 miles from the nearest reactor and/or separation plants.
  • No towns of more than 1,000 people within 20 miles.
  • No main highway, railway or employee village closer than 10 miles to the hazardous rectangle.
  • A clean and abundant water supply.
  • A large electricity supply.
  • Ground that could bear heavy loads. (Like childbearing hips, but for land.)

A site in Southeastern Washington exceeded almost all of these criteria, thanks in part to the recently completed Grand Coulee Dam (which is still the largest power-producing facility in the US), and the site’s general proximity to the Columbia River, and it was about as far away from Tennessee as you can get without going to Canada, and nobody wants to do that. The only thing the site didn’t have going for it was that there were people there. The Hanford and White Bluffs settlements and numerous Native Americans in the area, who had most recently been relocated, i.e., screwed out of their lands, due to the Grand Coulee Dam project. So, the US government used its friend, eminent domain, to force the mandatory evacuation of approximately 1500 people (I don’t buy this number by the way—I assume it was much higher) from the area. Plus, 1500 is still a larger number than the 1000 mentioned in the requirements. The people were given the generous timeframe of 30 days to evacuate.1

The evacuated area was roughly the half the size of Rhode Island, which is an entire state. Before the evacuation, a whole lot of this land was planted in apricot orchards. If apricots get ripe in a government-seized orchard, and no one’s around to pick them… bring in the local prison camp to do it! For the next few seasons, even after the nuclear stuff started happening at the site, men from the low-security prison camp where brought in for the job. So radioactive apricots were likely part of the Northwest’s food supply for several years.2

So the men who were imprisoned because they didn’t want to fight in the war? Turns out they ended up being the most destructive part of the war effort. Irony—it’ll get ya.

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Our tour began at the B Reactor Tour Headquarters, located in a strip mall of the sort normally housing orthodontists and taco shops. At the tour headquarters we watched a very PR-ish, workplace-safety-style (but still good!) videos called The Hanford Story, outlining the area’s history (Apricots! Displaced people!) and current projects (cleanup, a cool nuclear glass production facility). I also wandered around looking at the few awesome artifacts on display. Like this really cool ID badge with dosimeter that had recently been freed from a block of sixty-year-old concrete.

There were also these scientist mannequins that were approximately 1/3 normal human size. (What’s up with the mini people at all of these atomic tourist sites, guys?) I don’t know what they were doing in the back of the room and I don’t know why they were so tiny. Did they escape from Oz? #mysteries. Anyway, the lady scientist even had tiny mannequin nylons (Wasn’t silk, or nylons in general, rationed during WWII? I’m not sure if she really would have had on nylons.) and penny loafers, so that was kind of awesome.

After the video and wandering the exhibits (which were basically the badge and the tiny scientists) we boarded the bus to take us to the site!

The bus was comfy and the windows were large. We were treated to a great out-the-window, over-the-loudspeaker tour by the bus docent, Ann. On the drive she pointed out the overall layout of the site. We could see seven of the nine reactors—amazing—and The Queen Mary of the Desert, which is the enormous Queen Mary_ sized plutonium separation plant plopped down in the middle of the desert. There were also the environmental features, including Rattlesnake Mountain, which is the tallest un-treed mountain in the world, you guys, and a sacred site of the Yakima Nation. Ann also showed us, or pointed in the direction of, really, the low security camp of the prisoners/apricot pickers, two gangs of elk, and the site of an old natural gas well that was accidentally discovered, and then used for years by sheepherders in the area as essentially a really big nightlight. Apparently, everyone knew it was there, and would just light it when they camped there, without an explosion incident, I think, until a gas company decided to make use of the gas for something other than shepherd camp lighting.

Our drive skirted the edge of the site, and once we were all the way at the other end, we turned off the highway and waited as Ann jumped off the bus and unlocked the gate to let us onto the grounds. The responsibility! I want those keys! But then again, the gate looked super heavy. We drove through the gate, and waited for Ann, because the driver was nice like that, and then proceeded down a fairly well-maintained road to a guard station (or just a group of trailers used by contractors at the site), where we were not checked. Then we made a right-ish turn toward the B Reactor! OMG, so exciting!

Here’s a pic of the B Reactor:

The B Reactor looked very much like EBR-1, except bigger. And there weren’t nuclear-powered jet engines wasting away under the hot Idaho sun. Instead, there was a big train used to haul nuclear stuff all over the site. And it was A-MAZ-ING. I mean, do you see how awesome it is?

Now I know this is kind of a bummer, but we’re not going to talk about the B Reactor today, because the tour of the reactor was so exciting, it needs its own column. Because you’d totally tl;dr the shit out of a column that was close to 5,000 words.

Instead, let’s talk a little about the mess at the site, and how we’re (trying to) fix it.

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Environmental impact is possibly the trickiest piece of the nuclear puzzle.

Atomic weapons are radioactive. That’s why they’re so… god-like. And when this all started we really had no idea what the consequences would be, and I’m not just talking about the nearly immediate effects of dropping an atomic weapon in a populated area consisting almost entirely of wood-framed houses. I’m talking about the radiation that was inadvertently/unknowingly/maybe carelessly/I don’t really know released into the environment through the production of the weapons themselves.

It’s bad. Really, really incredibly bad.

The Hanford Site is the most contaminated nuclear site in the US.

First of all, we crapped-up the river. For almost thirty years, the Columbia River was used to cool the reactors at the Hanford Site. River water-cooling is still a fairly common process, but has been much refined since the Hanford days. This is what would usually happen. Water was pumped from the Columbia River, moved through the reactors to cool them, let sit in a tank for several hours upon exiting the reactor, and then returned to the river. Obviously, there was some radioactivity to this water. Radiation was measured downstream at the coast, where the Columbia River enters the Pacific Ocean. And you know what’s in the Columbia River? Salmon. And you know what salmon are? Food. For people, bears, beavers—all sorts of things.

Next, radioactive isotopes were released into the air when plutonium was separated from the uranium. These isotopes didn’t just disappear, but moved “downwind” to Idaho, Montana and parts of Canada. Downwinders experienced an increased rate of all sorts of cancers likely because of these radioactive isotopes. There was also something called the “Green Run” where 8,000 curies of iodine-131 were released over two days. This stuff causes thyroid cancer and is the stuff that we were/are worried about with the Fukushima accident.3

And then there’s all the stuff that was made radioactive in the actual plutonium separation process. This is literally anything that has touched something radioactive. Gloves, tools, glasses, machinery, sludge from the reactors—anything that has a radioactive tinge to it. Now, we did know that radiation was bad, we just didn’t really know the extent of it. It seems like anyway, judging by how we handled things, but then again, by this point in history, we’d had a few accidents, and we knew Marie Curie had died from her exposure to radiation, less than a decade before this, so…

Right now, the Hanford Site has 177 storage tanks. 149 of these tanks are “single-shell” tanks. This means there is ONE layer of tank between the radioactive stuff and the surrounding ground. Now this is in no way based on anything, but in my brain, these are septic tanks simply filled with radioactive mess rather than the normal septic tank mess. This seems like such a bad idea. And as you would think, some of these tanks (about 1/3 of them) are leaking, yes leaking, into the surrounding ground, with some of them leaking at a rate of almost a gallon a day. That’s a noticeable amount. I mean, you’d notice if a gallon of water were ending up on your kitchen floor every day, right?

Now I could try to shock you with the actual amounts of waste at the site (millions and billions are used to measure it), but what good would that do? We made a mess. But we were so young and strong-willed and clever and we were moving so quickly into the future, that we kind of skipped over some things. Some important things, but I get it. Maybe we did put the cart before the horse, but you know what? We ended a war because of it. I’m conflicted. We made all these incredible advances in science, more so than ever before, but we also unleashed the godhead and ruined chunks of our only home. It’s a lot to weigh.

But, we’re cleaning it up. Slowly. So very slowly, but it’s getting done, and with some very promising results both environmentally and technologically. One of the coolest parts of the cleanup, I think anyway, is the vitrification plant. Vitrification is basically making glass. The plan is to take the radioactive materials, combine them with glass-making components, super-heat the whole thing, pour it into molds and then let it cool, with the result being stable glass containing the radioactive waste. The glass can then be stored permanently, in a lot less risky/messy manner than before vitrification.4

Anyway, since we’ve spent this column in essentially the 1955 and 2015 versions of the Hanford Site (as if this was the Back to the Future franchise), we’ll spend some time in 1985 next time by looking at the B Reactor, the heart and soul of the whole (plutonium) production. Until then!

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1 I’m really not sure why this evacuation part interests me so much, but it’s definitely turned into a brain bug and setup shop in my head. I’m super interested in the “before” of places. Maybe it’s because I’m a child of The West, home to too many dam/reservoir/reclamation projects to count, but show me a WPA/CCC-built reservoir and all I can see are the tangles of barbed wire and remnants of ranches rotting beneath. Entire settlements lie beneath some of these reservoirs and in my brain they look like the underwater Coney Island of A.I. If you’re at all interested in this type of thing, Northfork is an insanely beautiful (fictional) movie about the last days of a town before it is flooded as part of a new reservoir.

2 Can you imagine the cyanide you could have made from those suckers?!

3 Except the Fukushima accident has supposedly released 21 times the amount of iodine-131 that was released at Hanford during the first three years of operation. So, that’s concerning.

4 The vitrification plant reminds me so much of the scene near the beginning of Swan Song immediately following the nuclear strike on New York where Sister Creep finds sculptures created from the windows melting and fusing with the jewels of the 5th Avenue jewelers.