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for people who care about the West

Amid the lovely the lethal remains


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, At Hanford, the real estate is hot.

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 complex.

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."

Perhaps most 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 Americium.

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 study.

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 groundwater.

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 deficit.

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 control."