Inheriting Hanford Blog

Environmental Monitoring at Hanford

By Zoey Kapusinski

Wanapum Tules

Wanapum Tules

More than 70 years ago, Colonel Franklin T. Matthias flew around the western United States searching for the perfect spot to build nuclear facilities that would produce Plutonium-239 and Uranium-235 for use in World War II. Flying over the Columbia River, Matthias saw a wide open space, plenty of water for cooling the reactors, an abundance of hydroelectric power, and relatively few people. After determining the location of the Hanford Site, the War Department gave the residents of White Bluffs and Hanford, two small farming and ranching communities in the area, just 30 days and little money to evacuate their homes. The local Wanapum People were displaced and soon denied access to the Hanford Reach, inhibiting traditional lifestyle practices including fishing, hunting, and foraging.

However, the creation of the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation did not stop people from spreading throughout the rest of the Columbia River Basin, and Hanford’s lingering contamination is a prevalent issue for those invested in the Columbia River’s health due to fishing, agricultural production, and recreation.

Keeping all of this in mind, you may wonder how safe the food, water, and wildlife are around the Hanford Reach or further downstream. Many government agencies – U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), WA Department of Health (DOH), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) – monitor the food grown around Hanford, sample fish, and assess water quality in the Columbia River. Tribal nations and citizen scientists also conduct scientific monitoring.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), on behalf of DOE, regularly samples alfalfa, asparagus, cherries, honey, leafy vegetables, milk, potatoes, and wine from sites both upwind and downwind of the Hanford Site. DOH takes split samples to verify PNNL’s results. Their most recent data can be found in the Hanford Site Environmental Report for Calendar Year 2013. According to the report, most food samples had radionuclide concentrations below levels that could be detected, but certain contaminants that may have originated from the Hanford Site (such as tritium and beryllium) were found at low levels in some samples.

milkFor example, tritium was found in all samples of milk. However, the most contaminated sample had a concentration of 58 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), much lower than the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 20,000 pCi/L set by the EPA.

Generally, the produce and wine samples in 2013 had concentrations of contaminants that were within or lower than historical levels. PNNL and DOH will continue to test produce and wine and post the results of their findings. You can view their latest reports at the Mission Support Alliance Environmental Reports page.

What about the water? Hanford’s groundwater is not accessible to the public, and no potable water supplies currently exist on site. That being said, many communities, such as the Tri-Cities, draw their water from the Columbia River. Richland, the city closest to Hanford, has drinking water that meets all EPA and state health standards, according to this 2014 Water Quality Report. Although the drinking water is safe, Richland’s surface, well field, and single-well water sources all have a high susceptibility rating, which indicates a high potential of becoming contaminated. For those in the area, ensuring that Hanford cleanup is protective of human health is of vital importance.

The most serious threats to the Columbia River from Hanford are the creeping plumes of contaminants in the groundwater, some of which are entering the Columbia River. The major contaminants are uranium, technetium-99, tritium, strontium-90, iodine-129, nitrate, chromium, and carbon tetrachloride. Despite these contaminants, the river remains safe because the huge volume of water greatly dilutes the concentration of dangerous chemicals and radionuclides.

DOE and its contractor CH2M Hill utilize multiple methods to prevent further contamination from reaching the river as well as to clean the groundwater itself. Probably the most well-known facilities for cleaning Hanford’s groundwater are the pump and treat systems. The pump and treat systems work by removing contaminated groundwater below Hanford, capturing certain contaminants in a specially designed resin, and then reinjecting the clean water back into the ground to “push” the contaminated water away from the river.

Members of the public can access Hanford Environmental Information System (HEIS) well-monitoring data with the Environmental Data Access tool.


Columbia River Sturgeon

In addition to drinking water, people from all over the Pacific Northwest and beyond are invested in fish health in the Columbia River. Salmon, steelhead, trout, sturgeon, and other fish are regularly sampled by tribal fisheries, NGOs, and other federal and state agencies. WA DOH conducts fish sampling throughout the Columbia River system, including the 51-mile stretch of river that comprises the Hanford Reach. This is the only free-flowing, non-tidal section of the Columbia River, and it provides critical spawning grounds for wild fall chinook salmon.

Contaminants sourced from Hanford, particularly radionuclides, have not been the cause of fish consumption advisories along the Columbia River. According to DOH, salmon, steelhead, lamprey, and shad are generally safe to consume, but others such as bluegill and sturgeon should be consumed at lower quantities due to mercury and PCBs. The most recent report including fish sampling data can be found here.

Fish are not the only wildlife monitored at Hanford. Rabbits, waterfowl, and plants are also included in the 2013 Hanford Site Environmental Report. Among the rabbits and the Canada geese sampled, cesium-137 was not detected, and only one sample of rabbit contained a detectable concentration of strontium-90.

Contaminants were detected more often in the vegetation; however, radionuclide levels remained within historical range of samples collected in similar areas.

Although the public is not permitted to roam the Hanford Site and forage freely, the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan envisions a future where the public would have access to a large portion of the remediated land. Native American tribes such as the Yakama are especially keen to see a fully remediated Hanford so they may exercise their treaty rights in their ancestral home. Whether or not the animals and vegetation at the Hanford Site will be safe for consumption once cleanup is completed remains to be seen.

In the meantime, a wide variety of individuals, public interest groups, and government agencies are fervently working to ensure a protective cleanup. Hopefully, the information provided in this post has been a solid overview of environmental monitoring at Hanford and may be used as a reference in the future.

If you want to participate in public meetings, public comment periods and more, check out DOE’s Hanford Event Calendar. Learn about the Hanford Advisory Board (HAB) here. More information on nuclear waste is provided by the WA Department of Ecology here.

PHOENIX Tool Aids Public Involvement

The Department of Energy’s Office of River Protection and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) recently presented a public web application that allows you to explore Hanford site environmental data. PHOENIX is an acronym that stands for PNNL-Hanford Online Environmental Information Exchange. A groundwater tool has been available for a few years, but now you can explore the content and conditions of the tanks as well. The tool presents maps, graphs, and detailed information that allows the user to look at data and come to their own conclusions.

Types of Information you can access in the Tank Edition:

  • In-tank sensor data
  • Tank waste volume data
  • Tank waste phases
  • Tank waste chemical and radionuclide inventory
  • Vadose zone gamma logs
  • Groundwater contaminant concentration data
  • Waste transfer history
  • Temperature readings
  • Leak status

There are limitations. Not all of the information is available, and the accuracy of some data has been historically disputed by tribal nations such as Nez Perce. The Office of River Protection announced that they are continuing to develop the app. However, disputes over the data have yet to be fully investigated.

Screenshot of PHOENIX application in action

Screenshot of PHOENIX application in action

Screenshot of PHOENIX application in action

Screenshot of PHOENIX application in action

What does all of this mean? It means that you can look at the waste levels, determine what is liquid or sludge, measure temperatures, check on the history of leaks and track the movement of groundwater. There are other useful features too, like the ability to look up work orders that have been requested – indicating the conditions of some equipment. The tools allow you to visually explore the Hanford site, investigate data points, and inform your own reporting. This type of accessibility opens the door for more public interest groups or individuals to engage in meaningful analysis and hold agencies accountable to cleanup needs.

The PHOENIX applications open up possibilities for students and advocates to be more involved in cleanup efforts at the Hanford site. If you would like to learn more about how the tool can be used to strengthen your work, email us at We would love to connect you to experts through our Inheriting Hanford program.

An Unsettled Future

By: Pedro de la Torre III

One of the many mystifying acronyms you are likely to encounter around Hanford is “CLUP,” which is short for the “Comprehensive Land Use Plan.” The CLUP is an environmental impact statement that examined frameworks for future land use at the Hanford site, one of which was adopted by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in a “record of decision” (ROD) in late 1999. Along with its own proposals and a “no action” alternative, the DOE examined alternatives submitted by local, state, and tribal governments as well as well as other federal agencies. At 523 pages it is a beast of a document, but it is definitely worth a read, even after 15 years.

It contains volumes of information about Hanford’s history, geology, ecology, regulatory framework, and geography. It also embodies the multiple and in many cases incompatible demands on site uses. Not only must legacy waste and contamination be responsibly managed and remediated—an incredibly difficult problem in itself—but it must be done while preserving sensitive ecosystems, fostering biodiversity, allowing for various types of recreation, protecting cultural resources, conserving historical artifacts and sites, promoting economic development and diversification, and expanding research opportunities.

The CLUP raises vexed, big picture questions that underlie much of the politics of the cleanup: Toward what end is Hanford being remediated? Which relationships to this “landscape” will be prioritized and protected, and which will be marginalized? To what degree is compromise between these competing demands desirable or possible?

Different visions for the future of the site are mapped—literally and figuratively—in this document. They are also quantified.  The percentage of the site designated for cultural and ecological preservation, for example, ranged from 94.89% in the Nez Perce proposal to 6.08% in the local government alternative, and the amount set aside for industrial purposes range from 1.41% to 12.06% for these proposals, respectively (3-56). The local government alternative also included 16.17% of the site—much of the Wahluke Slope (now part of the Hanford Reach National Monument)—used for agriculture, while no other alternatives included farming.

Local governments often supported strong clean up standards and the protection of scenic natural landscapes, but the Tri-Cities’ economic dependence on Hanford led to a long history of booms and busts as federal spending ebbed and flowed.

Local communities and their congressional representatives have, as a result, been strong advocates of expanding and diversifying Hanford’s mission for most of the site’s existence (see: Atomic Frontier Days). This advocacy was important to the introduction of nuclear energy generation at the site, for example, as well as the creation of the Fast Flux Test Facility and, more recently, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Local agricultural interests and some county governments argued that a history of agricultural use on the site was forcibly interrupted by the federal government. Where possible, they argued, this history of farming should resume and local control should be reestablished (see: Future-histories of Hanford).

Indigenous communities, however, would likely benefit little if at all from expanded agriculture, industry, or tourism at the Hanford site. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s (CTUIR) alternative argued for the removal of “all vestiges of nuclear weapons production from the Hanford Reach,” including the the-proposed B Reactor museum that is slated to be included in the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Tribal governments often point to the 13,000+ year history of land use at Hanford, the site’s significance to religious and cultural beliefs and practices, and the treaty rights that entitle tribal members to continue using the site.

In 1855 representatives of the Nez Perce, Yakama, and CTUIR signed treaties ceding most of their territories—including the Hanford site—to the federal government, but they reserved certain rights within their former territory, such as fishing, hunting, and erecting temporary structures. The details of how these treaty rights apply to Hanford has not been settled, and this is part of the reason why many of the standards and frameworks dealing with Hanford, including the CLUP, may ultimately prove to fall short of the trust that is legally required of the federal government.

The expansion of industry, agriculture, and recreation on site—in addition, of course, to inadequate cleanup standards???—could affect the ability of indigenous communities to exercise their treaty rights, as well as create additional risks for “cultural resources,” such as gravesites, artifacts, and sacred places.

When I have heard the CLUP referenced in Hanford Advisory Board meetings and interviews with various individuals involved in Hanford, it was usually invoked to suggest that the issue under discussion has already been settled, and no further discussion is needed. The implication was usually that future land uses designated in the CLUP justify lower cleanup standards. If an area is slated for industrial or “light recreational” uses, then why spend more and put more workers at risk to clean it up to residential standards or incorporate tribal use scenarios, which involve more exposure pathways through, for example, the consumption of plants and animals from the site? Why worry about how irrigation will affect the migration of radionuclides into the groundwater when agriculture will be forbidden on site?

This is a problematic understanding not only of what the CLUP is, but also of the limits of all land use planning in the face of long-lasting radioactive and toxic contamination and waste. The CLUP is meant to be a “living document designed to hold a chosen course over an extended period of development and management of resources,” while retaining the flexibility accommodating “a wide spectrum of both anticipated and unforeseen mission conditions.” It was supposed to be reassessed every five years through the “NEPA Supplemental Analysis” (SA), although only two SAs have taken place since 1999. The latest SA was just approved on May 12. It is also, as I mentioned, unclear whether it is consistent with treaty obligations: the Nez Perce and CTUIR governments “agreed to disagree” with the DOE over the interpretation of treaty rights, reserving the right to assert a stronger interpretation of these rights and their implication for land use at a later date. This means that land use plans have and will change, even in the short term.

Finally, much of the radioactive contamination and waste at Hanford now will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years or more. I-129, one of many radionuclides found at Hanford, has a half-life of 15.7 million years. Modern Homo sapiens have been around for roughly 200,000 years. Even designing warning signs for the relatively modest stretch of 10,000 years seems like an impossible task. The assumption that land use could be controlled or predicted for even hundreds of years strains credulity. This means that there are serious limitations that need to be considered when using the CLUP to inform cleanup standards.




Building Relationships – Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s DC Days

Last week, two Hanford Challenge staff traveled to the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA) DC Days. It was a great opportunity to meet community organizations from across the country who are committed to worker safety, accountability, and sustainable waste cleanup. Idaho’s Snake River Alliance, Georgia’s Women’s Alliance for New Directions and Southwest Research and Information Center were just a few of the inspirational groups doing crucial work across the country. We also met with state representatives and Department of Energy staff to discuss Hanford specific issues such as: a call for increased accountability for contractors, the need for new tanks, worker health and safety and the importance of engaging communities.


The ANA DC Days also recognized the work of whistleblowers who sacrificed their personal careers for the safety of workers, the public, and the environment. One was Jon Lipsky who led the 1989 raid that closed the Rocky Flats Plant – a nuclear weapons production facility near Denver, CO. He was part of the FBI team that discovered numerous violations of anti-pollution laws, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Clean Water Act.


Another influential whistleblower is Chuck Montaño at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is a former investigator and auditor at Los Alamos who blew the whistle on wasteful spending and fraud at the nuclear weapons lab. He was in DC with ANA calling for serious reform in whistleblower protection and policy to battle the grave problem with Department of Energy safety culture.

Click to learn more about Jon and Chuck’s stories.

It is important that organizations and individuals across the country have opportunities to connect, learn, and strengthen their work for increased nuclear accountability. Those partnerships play a crucial role in sustainable cleanup efforts at the Hanford site. We look forward to building (or continuing to build) relationships and collaborative efforts.

Waste Treatment Plant Timeline

By: Pedro de la Torre III

Featured image

Hanford’s 177 underground waste tanks store around two thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume, but they were never designed to be permanent solutions to the disposal of the byproducts of plutonium production. All of the 149 single-shell tanks are beyond their design life, and about a third of them have leaked dangerous chemical and radioactive waste into Hanford’s soil and groundwater. There has long been a near-consensus that vitrification—the process of mixing radioactive wastes with glass-forming materials that, when hardened, make the long-lasting waste easier to contain—is a necessary step in the process of cleaning Hanford up.

Unfortunately, the effort to design and construct a vitrification plant to treat Hanford’s waste has encountered serious challenges for more than 20 years. The timeline below highlights key reports by federal agencies and contractors identifying and investigating these issues.

Among other things, these documents provide valuable insights into the Waste Treatment Plant’s (WTP) ballooning budgets and mounting delays, as well as technical issues that, if left unresolved, could lead to an inoperable facility or even a major nuclear accident. Hanford’s WTP has also had a troublesome “safety culture,” including alleged retaliation against whistleblowers.

The Department of Energy has made progress in addressing some of the challenges examined by these reports. There is much left undone, however, in terms of resolving technical issues and  improving management of the WTP project.

Click here or on the preview above to check it out!

The Women of Hanford

bowling thenbowling now 2

“I look back now and realize this was a free country but we were living behind barbed wire at Hanford, all to protect womanhood. I know that where women were concerned, Hanford could either make you or break you.”

                                    —Jane Jones Hutchins, 1940s Hanford worker

In early production days, women workers had distinctly different experiences at Hanford than their male counterparts. On site, women lived in barracks surrounded by a steel and barbed wire fence which was patrolled by guards to keep male workers out. Sexual assault was not uncommon at the time. Women workers were cheaper to hire than males because they were “paid less and did not qualify for subsidized housing in Richland” (Brown).

Women worked disproportionately in chemical processing roles, ostensibly because they were safer than jobs in the nuclear reactors on site — an assumption that later proved inaccurate. Many women also worked in kitchens and in administrative support roles. A few women scientists played significant roles in the Manhattan Project, including Leona Marshall Libby, an associate of Enrico Fermi, who helped solve the issue of xenon poisoning, which was interfering with plutonium production in Hanford’s reactors. If you want to learn more about the experiences of women in Hanford’s production days, the Atomic Heritage Foundation has a number of oral histories at Voices of the Manhattan Project.

As a woman doing work around Hanford in 2015, I can attest that women continue to have a distinct experience navigating the Hanford world. Even in an age in which women rank highly in managerial positions on site, many of us have experienced being talked down to in conversations about Hanford. I recall one humorous instance in which a young female friend of mine was enduring some unsolicited “education” from a gentleman about Hanford until she politely interrupted to inform him that she was currently finishing up her dissertation on Hanford and was already well-informed on the issues. 16917828829_2be631b428_z

A desire to foster community between Hanford women prompted a group of us to create “Ladies of Hanford,” an informal intergenerational group of women who work on or are interested in Hanford issues. Last week, we had our first meetup, a bowling night inspired by a picture of women Hanford workers bowling in the 1940s. Although my bowling skills are laughable, I had a great time talking Hanford and hanging out with some truly brilliant women. If you are a woman interested in Hanford issues, you can contact Liz at to learn more and get involved with Ladies of Hanford.

By: Emily Bays

Advisory Boards and Citizen Voices: The Hanford Advisory Board

If you follow Hanford news, you’re likely to come across mentions of the Hanford Advisory Board (HAB) and their views on particular issues. The HAB is a 32-seat board that provides “informed advice and recommendations to the Tri-Party agencies on selected major policy issues concerning Hanford.”

HAB seats include representatives for a variety of groups, including

·      Tribes,
·      Hanford workforce
·      General public
·      Hanford unions
·      Universities
·      Environmental interests
·      Public health groups
·      State of Oregon
·      Representatives of local business interests

You can get more information about HAB membership here.

With so many different perspectives represented by HAB members, it is not a simple task to reach consensus when writing advice for the Tri-Party agencies. Discussions can be long and arduous. The survivor-themed decoration on the cake at the HAB’s anniversary party read “Outalk, Outsit, Outlast,” in a humorous nod to the tenacity required to make it through the long meetings and advice-writing.


This description of HAB meetings may not entice you, but they are often full of interesting discussion by Hanford experts and newcomers from a variety of backgrounds on important issues at the site.

HAB committees include:
·      Public Involvement
·      Tank Waste
·      Health, Safety, and Environmental Protection
·      River & Plateau
·      Executive Issues.

Committee members write advice on relevant issues and bring the advice to full board meetings for approval, where amendments can be made until consensus is reached and the advice is sent to the appropriate agencies.

The U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington State participate extensively in HAB activities and are present at each meeting. The presence of Hanford decision makers makes the HAB a vital tool for representing the public voice in Hanford cleanup decisions.

Since its charter in 1994, the HAB has given sustained attention to the many complex issues of nuclear waste cleanup and been a staunch advocate for the public, promoting accountability and transparency in cleanup decisions.

At HAB meetings you will also hear:
·      The latest updates from agency representatives
·      Hanford workers speak about their experiences
·      Tribal perspectives on cleanup

15765789066_86c651021f_kEvery Hanford Advisory Board meeting is open to the public, and time is allotted for public comment. If you are in the Tri-City area, this is a great opportunity to learn about and make a comment on cleanup issues that are important to you. The next HAB meeting is April 8-9 in Richland, and part of the meeting will be held in the evening to promote public attendance. Click here for more information about that meeting, including an agenda and call-in info for long-distance participants.

For more information about the Hanford Advisory Board, check out the official website.

by: Emily Bays

Particles on the Wall

On April 1, the art exhibit Particles on the Wall (POTW) will go up at the Maxey Museum at Whitman College in Walla Walla. POTW is an exhibit that explores “the world implications of the Hanford Nuclear Site, striving to display and unite core pieces in four disciplines: visual arts, literary arts, science, and history and memorabilia.” The exhibit aims to promote discussion and expression about Hanford.

The Hanford world can often seem dry, dense, and enigmatic. By pairing historical information about Hanford with poetry and visual art, POTW upends the traditional Hanford narrative and provides an engaging and diverse range of representations of Hanford’s impact.

Pieces in POTW include poetry, prose, historical Hanford-related objects, sculptures, and visual art. One of the featured poets is Kathleen Flenniken, former Washington State Poet Laureate and a former Hanford worker, whose book of poetry about Hanford, Plume, won the Washington State Book Award.

Particles on the Wall is a moving exhibit that frequently changes location. If you are near the Walla Walla area, I encourage you to go see it while it is set up in the Maxey Museum during April. It is also available as a book and a free PDF via the Particles on the Wall website.

by: Emily Bays

The Oregon Hanford Cleanup Board

Did you know that there are not one, but two Hanford-focused advisory boards? The first is the Hanford Advisory Board (the HAB), featured in another blog post here. The second advisory board working on Hanford cleanup issues is the Oregon Hanford Cleanup Board (OHCB).

The OHCB, formerly the Oregon Hanford Waste Board, was established by the Oregon State legislature in 1987. Like the HAB, the OHCB provides input to the Department of Energy and its regulators (the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology) on a variety of cleanup topics. It additionally provides policy recommendations to the Oregon legislature and the office of the governor.

The membership of the OHCB differs from that of the HAB in its inclusion of six Oregon state legislators, representatives from the Oregon Governor’s Office, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and two Oregon state agencies. The OHCB also has 10 citizen members representing different geographical areas of Oregon. The OHCB meets three times a year, often at locations along the Columbia River to emphasize a connection between the river and Hanford cleanup.

From Dirk Dunning's radiation primer

An image from the radiation primer at the Sept 2014 OHCB meeting by Dirk Dunning of ODOE.

I got to join the OHCB for a meeting in Cascade Locks, Oregon in September of 2014. I found the OHCB meeting to be slower-paced and more intelligible to a Hanford newbie than most of HAB meetings I’ve been to. The smaller group made for easier conversation between board members and agency representatives. Like at HAB meetings, time was built in for public comment so I was able to ask questions of board members, Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE) staff, and agency representatives. The meeting I attended also featured a particularly helpful primer on radiation by Dirk Dunning of ODOE.

You can peruse past OHCB advice and agendas here. The next OHCB meeting is on June 1st & 2nd in Boardman, Oregon, near Hermiston and not far from the Tri-Cities. The OHCB has a goal of increasing public awareness and involvement in Hanford cleanup by Oregon stakeholders and encourages the public to attend and participate. If you have questions about the OHCB or are interested in attending a future meeting, you can contact Ken Niles of ODOE.

by: Emily Bays

Getting Involved Through Hanford Internships

Internships can be a great way for young people to become involved in Hanford cleanup. Whether you are interested in getting experience with the nonprofit sector, contractors, or government agencies, there are options out there for you.

Because information about Hanford Internships can be hard to find, we created an internship guide to help you explore internship opportunities related to Hanford. Thanks to Pedro de la Torre for putting this guide together!

Hanford Internship and Contact Information

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