The Legacy of Hanford

The Legacy of Hanford

Washington continues to evade responsibility for forty-seven years of contamination.


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.

Now, however, the DOE is proposing to terminate its environmental mission at Hanford, the most contaminated area in the Western Hemisphere, as well as at other sites. Seeking to free up tens of billions of dollars for other military purposes, the DOE, in an Orwellian sleight of hand, is attempting to redefine more than three-quarters of its most dangerous radioactive wastes by renaming them as “incidental”–this despite the fact that the National Academy of Sciences said in a May 2003 report that the hazards “will persist for centuries…millennia…or essentially forever.”

Meanwhile, the Hanford downwinders, whose legal battles against the federal government have been thwarted at every turn, continue to suffer. “The people in this area have been forced into poverty, they fall through the cracks and they die,” says Kay Sutherland, who suffers from numerous cancers and has seen disease kill five members of her family. “I am a Holocaust survivor of the American cold war.”

Poisoned Fish, Poisoned People

The legacy of Hanford is grim. Thousands of Indians eating chemically contaminated fish from the Columbia River near the plant have very high risks of contracting diseases. In August 2002, the Columbia River Basin Fish Contaminant Survey, a study conducted by Indian tribes and the EPA, reported that nonradioactive contamination, such as PCBs in fish–which are eaten in far greater numbers by tribal people than by non-Indians–are found at the highest levels in the section of the river that runs through the site known as the Hanford Reach. According to the study, tribal children eating fish from the Hanford Reach have 100 times the risk of immune diseases and central nervous system disorders as non-Indian children. Risks of contracting cancer among tribal people from eating fish from this stretch of the river were estimated to be as high as 1 in 50.

The DOE and its contractors blame metal mines in Canada and other sources for these high levels. But tribal people believe the US government is the main source of this and other problems. “During the fifty years of Hanford’s operation, especially when the river was highly contaminated by the reactors, the site managers knew full well that tribal people were being poisoned. But they simply ignored their own data and considered us to be expendable,” says Russell Jim, director of the Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program for the Yakama Nation.

Tribal members aren’t the only ones to suffer. About 80 percent of Chinook salmon, an economic, environmental and cultural icon of the Pacific Northwest, spawn in the Hanford Reach, and they represent a significant portion of wild salmon harvest in British Columbia and Alaska. Hexavalent chromium, made familiar to the public by the movie Erin Brockovich, has spread from the Hanford site into salmon spawning beds. “We still are unaware of the magnitude of the calamity which lies beneath the surface lands of the Hanford Reservation,” said Bill Robinson, formerly of the Washington Council for Trout Unlimited. In an October 2000 study of the impacts of chromium on salmon in the Hanford Reach, the US Geological Survey found that the “physiological effects from [chromium]” included “histological lesions in [the] kidney…associated with elevated doses…and reduced growth and survival.”

In addition to the massive dumping, Hanford spread very large amounts of radioactive gases and particles over the countryside. During a site visit in 1951 by a panel of health experts from the DOE’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, a Hanford official warned that radioactive releases posed “a very serious health problem.” In a 1999 National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences study, researchers stated, “We found an epidemic of juvenile hypothyroidism among a population of self-defined ‘downwinders’ living near the Hanford nuclear facility.” The study came several months before Federal Judge Alan McDonald–named last year by Reader’s Digest as one of the nation’s worst federal judges–had dismissed nearly all 5,000 claims that had been filed by Hanford downwinders in the early 1990s, ruling that the plaintiffs had to show they received enough radiation, based on DOE estimates, to double their risk of contracting cancer.

In June 2002 the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned McDonald, stating, “Radiation is capable of causing a broad range of illnesses, even at the lowest doses.” But that same month the Centers for Disease Control released a second revision of a study it had performed, which concludes that there are no excess thyroid cancers among people who lived near the site. The study drew substantial criticism from a National Academy of Sciences panel, which found that “investigators probably overstated the strength of their finding that there was no radiation effect.”

Defining Away Disaster

The Bush Administration recognized early on that one way to free up more military funds for projects it wanted to pursue was to spend fewer dollars on environmental cleanups. The biggest savings, it concluded, would come from less costly burial procedures for high-level radioactive wastes. About 100 million gallons of such wastes, generated by the chemical separation of plutonium and uranium from spent reactor fuel, have been stored for several decades in leaking underground tanks larger than the Washington State Capitol dome. In addition to remaining hazardous for hundreds of centuries, these wastes, more than half of which are stored at Hanford, give off lethal penetrating radiation, even in tiny amounts. Everything they come into contact with becomes radioactive and dangerous. For instance, dangerous penetrating radiation from a small capsule of Hanford’s high-level radioactive waste, if placed in a crowded area such as a restaurant, could kill nearly everybody there in five to ten minutes.

The single most expensive cleanup technology is vitrification, a complex process involving heavy shielding and extensive remote handling that converts long-lived nuclear wastes into glass logs for permanent geological disposal. In November 2001 Jessie Roberson, the DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management, informed the agency’s budget office that her top cost-cutting objective was to eliminate the need to vitrify at least 75 percent of the waste scheduled for vitrification. How? The department simply redefined away the hazards of the most dangerous wastes by calling them “incidental”–meaning they can be mixed with cement and buried in shallow pits or just abandoned.

On July 3 Idaho US District Judge B. Lynn Winmill struck down the DOE’s plan as illegal. Ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Yakama Indian Nation, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe and the Idaho-based Snake River Alliance, the judge stated that the DOE cannot reclassify these wastes through a “whim” and must process them for geological disposal. “If the decision stands,” says department spokesman Joe Davis, “it could lead to a tremendous burden on the taxpayers and jeopardize our ability to clean up our sites sooner.” But, notes NRDC attorney Geoff Fettus, “If you follow the DOE’s arguments to their logical conclusion, we might as well dispose of the equivalent of several thousand tons of spent commercial reactor fuel in unlined shallow burial near important water supplies.”

The decision has also taken some momentum out of the nuclear industry’s Congressional victory last year, which allowed the DOE to proceed with the construction and licensing of a permanent high-level radioactive-waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Billions of defense funds have gone ostensibly to prepare for the storage of the DOE’s nuclear weapons wastes there, but in reality the facility appears intended mainly for use by commercial nuclear power companies (including the bankrupt Enron Corporation), which have powerful friends in both the White House and Congress. If the DOE is required to proceed with its original plans for high-level military-waste disposal, thus using up Yucca Mountain’s storage capacity, the nuclear power industry will not have enough room to dispose of its burgeoning inventory of spent reactor fuel. True to form, DOE Assistant Secretary Roberson asked Congress on July 17 to overturn the decision.

The Bush Administration has been aided in its efforts to downplay environmental risk at Hanford by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has ties to the oil and chemical industries and has attracted right-wing luminaries including House majority leader Tom DeLay. In “From Waste to Wilderness,” a CEI report issued in 2001, author Robert Nelson advocates that the federal government abandon the current nuclear-cleanup program as “economically wasteful and counterproductive…like the beaches fouled by the oil from the Exxon Valdez, sometimes the environmentally preferable course of action is to do little or nothing.”

Using terms like “risk reduction” and “cost savings,” the Bush Administration and the DOE are thus starting to emulate the former Soviet Union, which unabashedly wrote off large areas of land, water and people living near nuclear weapons sites.

In addition to trying to redefine the threats represented by nuclear wastes, the Bush Administration is also trying to get out of its long-term responsibility for Hanford and other areas like it. Before the latest developments, the DOE’s environmental cleanup program was based on the assumption that active remediation and waste-stabilization activities would continue until 2070. After that time, the DOE was to establish an environmental “stewardship” program for long-term management of these profoundly contaminated waste sites. But last year the Bush Administration abruptly canceled “long-term stewardship” planning by the National Academy of Sciences, signaling its intent to walk away from the DOE’s environmental problems. As a result, “such a plan does not exist now, yet it is a critical element in the closure of all DOE sites,” Peter Maggiore, Secretary of New Mexico’s Environment Department, told the Senate Energy Committee in July of last year.

The Nuclear States’ Rights Battle

Hanford is among some 169 heavily contaminated nuclear weapons production waste sites in twenty-eight states. The Bush Administration’s actions are putting it on a collision course with states such as Kentucky, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, New York, Missouri, California, South Carolina, Idaho and Washington, which are increasingly concerned about being left with de facto “national sacrifice” areas.

Washington State is drawing battle lines. “The state entered into a legally binding environmental compliance agreement with the DOE to remove and stabilize up to 99 percent of high-level radioactive wastes in Hanford’s tanks,” says Christine Gregoire, Attorney General of Washington. “We cannot allow these wastes to be permanently buried and have their dangerous radioactive plumes enter the Columbia River. DOE has not given us any credible reason why we should change this position.”

Further fueling opposition is the DOE’s attempt to dispose of some 341,000 cubic meters of radioactive and toxic wastes from other department sites in shallow, unlined “megatrenches” at Hanford. This would entail shipment of 43,000 truckloads of nuclear weapons wastes. According to Senator Ron Wyden, the “DOE’s accelerated cleanup plan is just a shell game that will simply move the problem across our highways in order to create an even bigger environmental, safety and health danger to the Pacific Northwest.”

In March of this year the State of Washington sued to block shipments of wastes from other DOE sites contaminated with plutonium and other similar isotopes from being stored at Hanford. According to the state, the department will not first commit itself to deadlines to remove Hanford’s very large inventories of buried plutonium wastes. A state referendum campaign started by citizens’ groups to block the DOE from shipping wastes to Hanford is expected to be on the 2004 ballot. Not to be outdone, the DOE countersued in April. “Recent actions by the State of Washington could have a chilling effect on cleanup operations at Hanford and elsewhere,” Roberson, the DOE official, said.

And the DOE is using the power of the purse to get its way. In the fiscal year 2003 budget, the department has cut $800 million from its site-cleanup budgets and placed it into a “Cleanup Reform” account, which according to the department “will provide the stimulus necessary to reach agreement with States and regulators on new, more effective cleanup approaches.”

“These are code words for economic blackmail,” says Gerry Pollet, director of Heart of America Northwest, a longtime Hanford citizens’ watchdog group. With the nation’s economy still in the doldrums, states are under severe financial stress and are facing difficulties just in maintaining basic services. According to Pollet, the “DOE is cynically using the threat of budget cuts to force Washington into relaxing environmental standards, especially for DOE’s most dangerous and long-lived wastes.”

The best hope for the people and states with DOE waste sites is to push back in the courts, elections, the news media and academic circles. Their elected state officials and Congressional delegations must be encouraged to prevent the creation of “national sacrifice” areas that threaten our environmental and economic well-being. It was done before, in the 1980s, when these elements came together and forced the nuclear weapons program, for the first time, to come to terms with its massive environmental legacy.

Tom Carpenter, of the Government Accountability Project, which has represented numerous Hanford whistleblowers, says that “when the US government first chose to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, it made a down payment on a vast environmental and health balloon mortgage.” That balloon mortgage has now come due. But to put things into perspective, environmental cleanup for the nuclear arms race is only about 4 percent of the $5.8 trillion spent on nuclear weapons since 1940. The costs of walking away at Hanford, as we commemorate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, are incalculable.

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