In mid-October of 1805, after being saved from starvation by Indians, the exhausted Corps of Discovery led by Captains Lewis and Clark finally reached the Columbia River Basin–gateway to the Pacific. The success of their two-year quest to chart the nascent American Empire was now assured. As the powerful current pushed their canoes to the ocean, they entered the high sagebrush desert, teeming with deer, elk and wild horses. They were astonished by countless salmon, some weighing over 100 pounds, in the crystal clear water–more than in any river of the world.
While camping nearby, Clark wrote in his journal, “We were obliged for the first time to take the property of the Indians without consent or approbation of the owner.” He reasoned that “the night was cold and we made use of a part of those boards and Split logs for fire wood.” Before, Lewis and Clark had scrupulously “made it a point at all times not to take any thing belonging to the Indians.” But the temptation was too great, setting an ominous precedent.
On January 16, 1943, Gen. Leslie Groves, the military leader of the Manhattan Project, chose Hanford, in eastern Washington near the Lewis and Clark campsite, for the world’s first large nuclear reactor. The area, the traditional wintering grounds of many Indian people, offered key elements Groves was looking for: plenty of water and electricity from the Columbia River dams, and sufficient isolation that nuclear accidents were regarded as tolerable. The Indians were promptly banned from their homes and from religious, fishing and medicine-gathering sites, and farmers were uprooted. Within about two and a half years the Hanford “B” reactor had made enough plutonium to destroy Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.
Over the following forty-seven years, until it was closed down in 1990, Hanford’s 570-square-mile nuclear complex continued to produce not just plutonium but massive contamination. There were many large releases of radioactivity, particularly iodine-131, which rapidly contaminates air, vegetation and milk supplies. Because it is absorbed mostly in the body’s thyroid gland, radioactive iodine has been linked to thyroid cancer and other types of thyroid damage. Between 1944 and 1947, more than 684,000 curies were released (the accident at Three Mile Island released about fifteen curies). In addition, some 440 billion gallons of contaminated liquids were directly disposed into the ground at Hanford–enough to create a poisonous lake the size of Manhattan and more than eighty feet deep. Hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, is now being found to damage fish in the river, while large amounts of radioactive contaminants were spread down the Columbia River and to parts of the Pacific Ocean along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. According to Timothy Jarvis, a scientist then with the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, enough dangerous materials were dumped at Hanford to have “the potential to induce cancer in every person currently on the planet, 208 million times over.”
In the late 1980s, the federal government finally acknowledged its responsibility for Hanford and other similar sites around the country and began the largest, most expensive and most challenging environmental cleanup program in US history. As Senator John Glenn put it in 1988, “What good does it do to defend ourselves with nuclear weapons, if we poison our people in the process?” Spurred on by angry citizens, states, “downwinder” lawsuits and Congressional pressure, cleanup operations continued over the next decade. Since 1989, more than $60 billion has been spent for the DOE cleanup, and an additional $200 billion is estimated as needed to deal with the daunting environmental legacy of the nuclear arms race over the next several decades. Hanford’s budget alone is bigger than the Environmental Protection Agency’s entire Superfund program.