Inside America's most toxic nuclear waste dump, where 56 million gallons of buried radioactive sludge are leaking into the earth
- Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the most polluted area in the United States. Buried beneath the complex is 56 million gallons of radioactive waste that need to be dealt with.
- The reservation produced the plutonium for Fat Man, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in Japan, as well as for the United States' atomic weapon stockpile during the Cold War.
- In June 2019, President Trump's administration announced it would downgrade the threat levels of some radioactive waste to save the government $40 billion on cleanup.
- The announcement has been criticized as a way to make cleaning up nuclear waste easier, without actually doing the clean-up part.
- Trump's administration also wants to cut Hanford's funding by $416 million. But the cleanup needs more funding, not less.
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Sitting on 586 square miles of desert in Washington, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the most toxic place in America.Buried beneath the ground, in storage tanks, are 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Many of them are leaking into the ground.Advertisement
According to NBC, some nuclear experts have said Hanford is "an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen."
Hanford produced the plutonium to build Fat Man, the atomic weapon that was detonated above Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and for the United States's nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.In 1989, after years of dismissing concerns about contamination, the reservation's management finally admitted the site needed to be cleaned up. But cleaning up nuclear waste is difficult. It can't be burned or buried. The plan is to build a waste management plant that will turn the waste into glass, which can be stored away for thousands of years. It's a slow, costly process.
As The Daily Beast reported, "Hanford is the worst kind of mess: the kind that humanity is capable of making, but not capable of cleaning up."The longer the contaminated materials are left, the worse they become. Here's what the nuclear reservation is like.
Hanford is built on a desert in Washington, spread out over 586 squares miles.
The Columbia River passes Hanford to the north and the east by a few miles, and it's downstream from two dams.Advertisement
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation began operating on September 6, 1944.
The first reactor was built in 11 months, and the majority of the 50,000 person workforce did not know what it was that they were working on...Advertisement
...until the first nuclear bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
To keep the nuclear complex secret, the government banned trespassing and set up a buffer zone called Hanford Reach.Advertisement
The "B" reactor was the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. This is its control room.
Hanford's plutonium was used in the Trinity Test, the first detonated nuclear bomb, and in Fat Man, the nuclear bomb was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945.Advertisement
After World War II, there was a brief production hiatus. But in 1948, plutonium became a priority again.
When the plant was up and running, using nine nuclear reactors and five reprocessing plants, it produced about 65% of the plutonium used by the US government.Advertisement
Hanford produced 67 metric tons of plutonium in all, and was responsible for a large part of the 60,000 nuclear weapons made by the US by 1987.
But producing the plutonium came at a cost. Even a small batch would result in a huge amount of contaminated waste.Advertisement
Solid waste can be anything from contaminated tools, to clothing, or broken equipment.
Signs of Hanford's impact on on the environment were noticeable as early as in 1960, when a 55-foot whale, killed off the coast of Oregon, was radiating gamma rays.Advertisement
Admittedly, it was new territory for the US. Here, Homer Moulthorp wears one of the suits he invented to stop employees from getting radiation poisoning.
To monitor radiation poisoning, scientists working at the complex tested animals, including rats, cats, dogs, cows, sheep, pigs, and alligators.Advertisement
Because it was a new kind of science, much of the nuclear waste was mismanaged and improperly disposed of.
Hanford had different processes for different wastes — slightly contaminated liquids went into ponds, solid waste was buried, and some gases were released into the air.Advertisement
But the most concerning is the highly radioactive waste that was stored in 177 storage tanks, each holding between 55,000 and 100,000 gallons.
Along with the tanks, cesium and strontium capsules are stored in water in the reserve.Advertisement
In 1989, the Tri-Party Agreement was signed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Washington State Department of Ecology to clean up the area.
Despite the agreement, what would follow would be a slow, often halting, attempt to clean up the most toxic place in America, at a cost of $2 billion a year.Advertisement
No longer a nuclear weapons factory, nuclear reactor stacks were knocked down...
... And reactors were sealed off from the world, also known as being "fully cocooned."Advertisement
In 1998, after 50 years of saying that leaks from the tanks were insignificant, management admitted that was not the case.
Despite no longer producing plutonium the surrounding areas continued to feel the effects of the nuclear waste.Advertisement
Radioactive tumbleweeds rolling across the reservation also caused issues in the early 2000s.
In 2002, work began on Hanford Vit Plant, a waste treatment plant, which is the key to cleaning up Hanford.Advertisement
In 2009, Hanford began offering tours to show the facilities and the famous "B" reactor. The tours are popular — in 2016, 10,000 people went on them.
It's also become a tourist destination for kayakers on the Columbia River.Advertisement
Even as the complex continues to deteriorate. In 2013, new leaks were discovered in several underground tanks.
In 2015, Doug Shoop, the Energy Department's top official at the reservation, said infrastructure was breaking down, and more nuclear radiation would be released.Advertisement
Shoop was right. In 2017, a tunnel storing radioactive waste collapsed.
The Department of Energy has said that Hanford's 10,000 workers are still at risk. Here, a worker is checked for radiation.Advertisement
In 2016, 61 employees were exposed to vapors from leaking tanks, two years after a report that there was a "causal link" between the vapors and lung and brain damage.
The Department of Energy wanted to dispose of all of the underground waste by 2047, but that's unlikely.Advertisement
And while costs are rising, President Trump wants to cut annual funding for the clean-up by $416 million.
Environmentalists won't stop fighting for the cleanup, but Tom Hanford, executive director of the watchdog Hanford Challenge, says that all the waste is never going to be dug up.Advertisement
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