H I S T O R I C B A C K G R O U N D
A Legacy of World War II & the Cold War
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. The government also denied access to Native Americans who lived along the river and had historically used the area for fishing, hunting, food gathering, and religious purposes. Within a year, the U.S. had constructed the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor. In August 1945, concentrated plutonium manufactured at Hanford powered the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
The United States eventually built nine nuclear reactors along the Columbia River to produce plutonium and other materials. The river provided electricity from the Grand Coulee Dam and abundant water to cool the nuclear reactors.
From 1943 to 1989, the federal government and its contractors generated unprecedented volumes of hazardous and radioactive waste. For example, Hanford released approximately 725,000 curies of radioactive iodine‐131 between 1944 and 1957. In contrast, the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania released between 15 and 24 curies of iodine‐131.
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. Here, the river flows freely in riffles and boils, not constrained by dams.
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. The United States also directly discharged contaminated cooling water into the Columbia River from the nuclear reactors, which contained about 110 million curies of mostly short‐lived radionuclides. Hanford’s operations also resulted in air emissions of approximately 20 million curies from 1944 to 1972. Citizens downwind of the radioactive emissions reportincreased rates of thyroid cancer as a result of the iodine releases.