During the four decades the Hanford Nuclear Reservation produced weapons-grade plutonium, it laced eastern Washington's soil, water and air with radioactive sludge that may never disappear. Recently, Hanford also became synonymous with human radiation experiments that make the Cold War seem particularly chilling.
Hanford workers were
unknowingly subjects of radioactive experiments, poisoned by the
"trust-me" secret hand of government that ran the weapons
Many living downwind and downriver of
Hanford ingested untold doses of radioactive pollution. Anyone with
a backyard cow within several hundred miles of Hanford - common in
the days of Hanford's World War II beginning - took in the airborne
radioactive contaminants that settled on vegetation, were eaten by
cows and passed through to dairy products.
People who attended school in the area during the bomb-building
days are beginning to come forward with strange stories that make
it sound as if they were part of the experiments. That could be the
cruelest irony for Richland, the town nearest the Hanford Nuclear
Reservation. Richland took such pride in its connection to nuclear
weapons that its high school athletic logo is a mushroom cloud and
its teams are named the "Bombers."
famous among the nefarious Hanford experiments was the Department
of Defense's December 1949 "Green Run." It was called green because
uncured uranium slugs, fresh from the reactor, were exposed to the
atmosphere instead of being cured in a building that contained
their radioactive emissions.
The reasons for the
experiment are still classified. What is known is that 8,000 curies
of radioactive iodine 131 were spewed into the atmosphere in just
two days. Because the weather took an unexpected turn, much more of
it was deposited in eastern Washington than government scientists
anticipated. At one point, measurements showed nearby Kennewick
getting 1,000 times the safe dose - and the threshold for a safe
dose was much higher then than it is today.
Billions of gallons of radioactive waste were dumped in the ground,
leaving plumes of tritium and other radioactive pollution migrating
through the aquifers to the Columbia River. Hundreds of tanks, many
of them leaking, now harbor concoctions of waste that scientists
cannot identify, much less divine how to deal with. Plutonium
abandoned on the production line of mysterious concrete complexes
like the PUREX plant slowly degrades to more deadly
All of this is lethal. Luckily, it
covers only a fraction of the landscape.
Cleaning up the mess, Hanford's "mission" since the late 1980s,
seems impossible. Some $8 billion has been invested; many people
question whether the effort will succeed. Mountains of paper have
been shuffled and tons of analysis generated, but there is little
to report. The most tangible results are study, delay and
A report for the U.S. Senate Committee on
Energy and Natural Resources, Train Wreck Along the River of Money,
concludes that the nearby Yakima Indian Nation has "the clearest
and most coherent vision for cleanup." But the report also
concludes the Yakima view is largely ignored.
Meanwhile, public relations soaks up about $7 million a year and
contractors have logged as much as $40 million in performance
bonuses since 1989. A minuscule portion of the nearly $2 billion
annually goes to pulling hazards out of the ground or the
The performance bonus system was
recently changed, however, and the "Contract with America" Congress
is contemplating ending the gush of dollars to Hanford as part of
balancing the federal budget. But what was once supposed to require
30 years and $60 billion could take 50 years and cost $1 trillion.
That is one quarter of the total federal
Even then Hanford won't be clean in the
Mr. Clean sense of the word. "People believe when you say "cleanup"
it goes away," says Rick Wojtasek of Westinghouse, the primary
government contractor here. "It doesn't - you regain management