Richland, WA

Hanford Nuclear Facility


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The Hanford Nuclear Site is a 586-square-mile manufacturing facility constructed in 1943 for the production of plutonium used in nuclear weapons.  Also referred to as the the Hanford Project, Hanford Reservation, Hanford Engineer Works, Hanford Works, and HNR, the facility played a key role in the “Manhattan Project,” which developed the first atomic bomb in World War II.  After 44 years, Hanford was decommissioned in 1987.  Now the complex is plagued with intense radioactive pollution caused by the site’s various production facilities and with asbestos contamination resulting from the miles of asbestos insulation used to cover the facility’s high-heat mechanical equipment and pipelines. 

History

The Hanford Nuclear Site was conceived in 1942 and built by DuPont Company from 1943 to 1946 in the Washington town of Hanford, along the banks of the Columbia River.  Reactor B – the facility’s first full-scale plutonium reactor – produced the plutonium for “The Gadget” released in New Mexico’s White Sands Proving Ground, which bomb is considered to have ushered in the Atomic Age.  The plutonium used in the “Fat Man” device which devastated Nagasaki, Japan also was generated in Hanford’s Reactor B.

In 1946, General Electric assumed operation of the plant with supervision by the Atomic Energy Commission.  In response to the Soviet’s expansion of their own nuclear program, Hanford received additional funding in 1947 for the construction of two more plutonium production reactors.  During the Cold War, Hanford continued to expand, reaching its peak of production from 1956 to 1965.  The original three WWII reactors – Reactors B, D and F – received extensive modifications and upgrades and a series of underground storage tanks were built to hold the radioactive waste.  Ultimately, the Hanford Nuclear Site maintained nine nuclear reactors with five processing plants and an additional 900 laboratories and other support buildings.  In all, the Hanford facility generated 63 short tons of plutonium, sufficient for virtually all of the estimated 60,000 nuclear weapons in the nation’s arsenal.

The average individual life span of the reactors was 22 years; most were shut down between 1964 and 1971.  The N-Reactor, which was the last built, continued to operate until 1987.  The N-Reactor was the only dual-purpose reactor at Hanford, being used like the others for the production of weapons grade plutonium, and also for the generation of civilian electrical power through the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS). and a plutonium production reactor for nuclear weapons. The N-Reactor operated until 1987.  Since their deactivation, most of the reactors have been “cocooned” so the radioactive materials are able to decay, and the structures surrounding the reactors have been taken down and buried.  The famous B Reactor was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 and is occasionally open to the public for guided tours.

Radiation Pollution

When Hanford was decommissioned at the end of the Cold War, the production facility had generated 53 million gallons of radioactive waste, all of which remains at the site. Hanford Nuclear Site is thought to be America’s most contaminated nuclear site.  In addition to the waste left at the complex, much of the radioactive pollution has been released into the environment. 

The Columbia River became polluted after water drawn from it to cool Hanford’s nuclear reactors was pumped back into the river after it had been contaminated.  The water taken from the river was run through a pump system where it became radioactive from contact with the reactors it was used to cool.  The water was directed then into large retention tanks, where the radioactivity was intended to dissipate before the water was released back into the Columbia.  But the longer-lived radioactive isotopes were unaffected by this period in the holding tanks, so the water pumped back into the Columbia remained radioactive, to the detriment of the fish and wildlife there.

In addition to the water pollution, a problem with air pollution also was created.  The radioactive isotopes released into the air at Hanford were carried downwind to Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and beyond. These radioactive isotopes found their way into the food chain and exposed a wide cross-section of the people living in the western states.

The site’s contamination of nearby groundwater continues to threaten the environment.  The 53 million gallons of radioactive waste left behind at Hanford are stored in underground tanks.  Although the federal Environmental Protection Agency has initiated a massive clean-up of the area to stabilize the tanks, it is estimated that one third of them have already leaked into the soil.  Clean-up of the facility is not expected to be complete until 2040, about a hundred years after the time that Hanford began production. 

Asbestos Contamination

The production of weapons grade plutonium generates a lot of heat.  Every heated surface in the Hanford facility and all of the high temperature pipes had to be insulated.  Many of the the pipes in the facility were so large that men were able to stand inside them.  Because of its resistance to heat and flame, asbestos insulation was used throughout the Hanford Nuclear Site.  The use of asbestos insulation materials did allow the workers at Hanford to carry out their duties without immediate heat-related injuries.  But the products’ use without warnings or proper respiratory equipment also exposed the workers to a risk for serious disease in the decades to come.  Anytime asbestos insulation is cut or dislodged, its dangerous fibers become airborne.  When the fibers are inhaled in the lungs, they may cause asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma, an always fatal cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. 

The risk of developing mesothelioma for former Hanford workers has been recognized in the scientific community.  A study was published in 2009 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine that focused on nearly 9,000 workers from Hanford and three more nuclear sites operated by the Department of Energy.  Knut Ringen, one of the study’s authors noted that the “most significant finding at Hanford was a very high rate of mesothelioma.” Indeed, the mesothelioma rate for former Hanford workers is 11 times higher than for the general population.

Hanford’s sprawling site covers an area practically one-third the size of Rhode Island.  Between 1943 and 1946, nearly 50,000 workers built the facility using truckloads of asbestos insulation throughout the complex.  The asbestos-contaminated site ultimately housed four main areas:

  • the 100 Area, where the nuclear reactors were located along the Columbia River;
  • the 200 East and West Areas, the chemical separations facilities situated in the Central Plateau inland;
  • the 300 Area, in the southeast corner of the site, where the administrative and testing facilities, including the high temperature sodium facility, were located; and,
  • the 400 Area, where in the 1970s, the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) was built to use sodium instead of water for cooling the reactors.
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Within the 100 Area, nine nuclear reactors were built:

WWII Era Reactors:

  • B-Reactor – constructed between August 1943 and September 1944; shut down February, 1968.
  • D-Reactor – completed in December, 1944; shut down June, 1967.
  • F-Reactor – completed in February, 1945; shut down June, 1965.

Cold War Era Reactors:

  • H-Reactor – came online in October, 1949; shut down April, 1965.
  • DR-Reactor – came online in October, 1950; shut down December, 1964.
  • C-Reactor – came online in November, 1952; shut down April, 1969.
  • KW-Reactor – came online in January, 1955; shut down February, 1970.
  • KE-Reactor – came online in April, 1955; shut down January, 1971.
  • N-Reactor – came online in December, 1963; shut down January, 1987.

Reactor 100B, now designated on the National Register of Historic Places, was the first reactor built, and the one that made the plutonium for the atomic bomb tested in New Mexico and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki during WWII.  Reactor 100N was the last built; its purpose was to develop plutonium and to produce steam used to generate electricity.  The reactor was dedicated by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The main reactor building and the heat exchanger building were connected by high temperature pipes that looped between the two structures.  All of these areas were literally coated with asbestos insulation materials.

Other areas within the Hanford complex where asbestos may have been present include:

  • Plutonium Finishing Plant (PFP): produced plutonium metal for use in weapons;
  • B Plant, S Plant, T Plant: processed, separated, and extracted various isotopes and chemicals;
  • REDOX Plant / C Plant: recovered uranium waste from WWII processes;
  • Technical Center: manufactured fuels, metal fabrication, metallurgy, radiochemistry, physics,  biophysics, neutralization, radioactive sewer;
  • Tank Farms: where liquid nuclear waste was stored underground;
  • Metal Recovery Plant / U Plant: recovered uranium from tank farms;
  • Uranium Trioxide Plant (also called UO3 Plant or Uranium Oxide Plant): received output from the U and PUREX plants, produced uranium trioxide powder;
  • Plutonium-Uranium Extraction Plant / PUREX Plant: extracted still useful substances from spent fuel waste; and
  • Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor (PRTR): experimented with combinations of alternative fuel.

Over the years, several different private contractors have been retained by the government to operate the Hanford Nuclear Site, including:

  • E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Company (DuPont);
  • General Electric Company (GE);
  • Vitro Engineers;
  • J.A. Jones Construction;
  • U.S. Testing;
  • Battelle Memorial Institute;
  • Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC);
  • Douglas United Nuclear;
  • Isochem;
  • ITT Federal Support Services, Inc.;
  • Douglas United Nuclear;
  • Atlantic Richfield Hanford Company;
  • Hanford Environmental Health Foundation;
  • Westinghouse Hanford Company;
  • ARHCO;
  • United Nuclear Industries, Inc.;
  • Boeing Computer Services (BCS);
  • Rockwell Hanford Operations (RHO);
  • Braun Hanford Company (BHC);
  • Kaiser Engineering Hanford (KEH);
  • Fluor Daniel Hanford, Inc. (FDH); and
  • Fluor Hanford.
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