Hanford Nuclear Reservation

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Hanford Nuclear Reservation

The Hanford Engineering Works was conceived in June 1942 under the direction of Major General Leslie R. Groves, head of the famous Manhattan Project, to produce plutonium and other materials for use in the development of nuclear weapons . By December 1942, a decision was reached to proceed with the construction of three plantstwo to be located at the Clinton Engineering Works in Tennessee and a third at the Hanford Engineering Works in Washington.

Hanford was established in the southeastern portion of Washington state between the Yakima Range and the Columbia River, about 15 mi (24 km) northwest of Pasco, Washington. The site occupies approximately 586 mi2(1,517 km2) of desert with the Columbia River flowing through its northern region. Once a linchpin of United States nuclear weapons production during the Cold War era, Hanford has now become the world's largest environmental cleanup project.

Hanford Engineering Works, known as HEW or "site W" in classified terms, was originally under the control of the Manhattan District of the Army Corps of Engineers (MED) until the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy, DOE) took over in 1947. The actual operation of the site has been managed by a series of contractors since its inception. The first organization granted a contract to run site operations at Hanford was E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company. In 1946, General Electric took over, and with the aid of several subcontractors ran construction and operation of the site through 1965. A series of contractors have directed operations at both the main DOERichland Operations Office and the DOE-Office of River Protection (ORP), the agency responsible for overseeing hazardous waste tank farm clean up along the Columbia River, since then.

In 1965, Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit organization, assumed management of the federal government's DOE research laboratories on the Hanford Site. The newly formed Pacific Northwest Laboratory (which became Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, or PNNL, in 1995) supports the Hanford site cleanup through the development and testing of new technologies. Battelle still runs the PNNL today.

A number of contractors have directed operations at HEW throughout its history. As of early 2002, the prime contractors at the DOE-Richland Operations Office included Battelle Memorial Institute (BMI); Bechtel Hanford, Inc.(BHI); Fluor Hanford, Inc. (FHI); and the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation (HEHF). The DOE-Office of River Protection (ORP), responsible for overseeing hazardous waste tank farm clean up along the Columbia River, is managed by prime contractors CH2M Hill Hanford Group, Inc. (CHG) and Bechtel National, Inc. (BNI).

Over the period from 1943 to 1963, a total of nine plutonium-production reactors and five processing centers were built at Hanford, with the last of the reactors ceasing operations in 1987 (permanent shut-down of the Fast Flux Test Facility [FFTF], a sodium-cooled breeding reactor that produced isotopes for medical and industrial use, was ordered to close in 2001). Plutonium produced at Hanford was used in the world's first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945. The Hanford Site processed an estimated 74 tons of plutonium during its years of active operation, accounting for approximately two-thirds of all plutonium produced for United States military use.

The plutonium fuel was processed on site at the Plutonium and Uranium Extraction Plant (PUREX). In the processing of plutonium, a substantial quantity of radioactive waste is produced; at Hanford, it amounts to 40% of the nation's one billion Curies of high-level radioactive waste from weapons production. PUREX ceased regular production in 1988 and was officially closed in 1992. Deactivation of the plant was completed in 1997.

During the HEWs operational lifetime, some high-level radioactive wastes were diverted from the relatively safe underground storage to surface trenches. Lower-level contaminated water was also released into ditches and the nearby Columbia River. The DOE reports that over 450 billion gallons of waste liquid from the Hanford plants was improperly discharged into the soil column during their operational lifetime. These wastes contained cesium-137, technetium-99, plutonium-239 and -240, strontium-90, and cobalt-60. So much low-level waste was dumped that the groundwater under the reservation was observed to rise by as much as 75 ft (23 m).

Today more than 50 million gal (189.3 million l) of high-level radioactive waste is contained in approximately 177 underground storage tanks, 67 of which have known leaks. One million gallons (3.8 million l) of this tank waste has already leaked into the surrounding ground and ground-water. An estimated 25 million ft4 of radioactive solid wastes remains buried in trenches which are similar to septic-tank drainage fields. Spent nuclear fuel basins have leaked over 15 million gal (56.8 million l) of radioactive waste. In total, over 1,900 waste sites and 500 contaminated facilities have been identified for clean up at Hanford. The contaminated zone encompasses a variety of ecosystems and the nearby Columbia River.

In the early 1990s, Congress passed a bill requiring the DOE to create a watchdog list of those Hanford tanks at risk for explosion or other potential release of high-risk radioactive waste. By 1994, the list had 56 tanks listed as a high-risk potential. By late 2001, the final 24 tanks had been removed from the congressional watch list, which is sometimes referred to as the "Wyden Watch List" (after sponsoring Senator Ron Wyden).

In 1989, the DOE, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the State of Washington Department of Ecology signed the Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order ("Tri-Party Agreement"). The Tri-Party Agreement (TPA) outlines cleanup efforts required to achieve compliance with the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA; or Superfund) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

Compliance with federal and state authorities under the TPA has not always progressed without problems for Hanford officials. The EPA fined DOE for poor waste management practices in 1999, levying $367,078 in civil penalties that were later reduced to $25,000 and a promise to spend $90,000 on additional clean-up activities. The following year EPA issued an additional $55,000 fine against the DOE for non-compliance with the Tri-Party agreement. However, the five-year review of the project completed by EPA in 2001, while specifying 18 "action items" for DOE compliance, also states that cleanup of soil waste sites and burial grounds "are proceeding in a protective and effective manner." In March 2002, DOE was fined $305,000 by the Washington Department of Ecology for failing to start construction of a waste treatment facility as outlined in the Tri-Party agreement. As of May 2002, the State had agreed to forgive the fine if the DOE began construction on the facility by the end of the year.

Even though the Hanford site poses significant environmental concerns, the facility has generated a number of innovative technological advances in the clean up and immobilization of radioactive wastes. For instance, one process developed in Hanford's Pacific Northwest Laboratory is in situ vitrification, which uses electricity to treat waste and surrounding contaminated soil , melting it into a glass material that is more easily disposed. The William R. Wiley Environmental and Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), which opened in 1997, houses a wide range of experimental programs aimed at solving nuclear waste treatment issues.

And despite the extent of its contamination, the isolation and security of the Hanford site has made the area home to a large and diverse population of flora and fauna . A 1997 Nature Conservancy study at Hanford found dozens of previously undiscovered and rare plant and animal species in various site habitats. The biodiversity study led to the establishment of the federally-protected 195,000-acre (79,000-ha) Hanford Reach National Monument in June 2000.

In May 2002 Department of Energy officials introduced a "Performance Management Plan for the Accelerated Cleanup of the Hanford Site." The new plan sets significantly revised goals for the completion of the site cleanup, setting some projects ahead 35 years or more. While the plan was still in its draft stage at the writing of this entry, DOE officials anticipate its approval by the end of 2002. Strategic initiatives outlined in the plan include restoration of the Columbia River Corridor by 2012 and completion of tank decontamination and closure by 2035.

[Paula A Ford-Martin ]



Gerber, Michele S. On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site, 2nd edition. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.


"Three-Way Agreement Reduces Length of Required Cleanup Time." Hazardous Waste Superfund Week 24, no. 12 (March 25, 2002).

"Washington State Freezes Fine Against Hanford Nuclear-Cleanup Site." Tri-City Herald, March 12, 2002 [cited May 2002]. <http://www.tri-cityherald.com/news/2002/0312/story4.html>.


Washington State Department of Ecology Nuclear Waste Program. [cited May 2002]. <http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/nwp>.

United States Department of Energy, Richland Operations Office and Office of River Protection. Performance Management Plan for the Accelerated Cleanup of the Hanford Site. [cited May 2002]. <http://www.hanford.gov/docs/hpmp/hpmp.pdf>.


U.S. Department of Energy, Hanford Site, Richland Operations Office, Freedom of Information Office, 825 Jadwin Avenue, P.O. Box 550, Richland, WA USA 99352 (509) 376-6288 , Fax: (509)376-9704 , Email: [email protected], <http://www.hanford.gov/FOIA/index.cfm>