Inheriting Hanford Blog

Celebrating Fat Man: Reflections On Hanford

Michael Reagan recently went on the Hanford public site tour, here are his reflections:

Sachiko Yasui was six years old when the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.  She remembers the flash, like “an overlapping of suns,” and the sensation that she was floating through air. When she tried to breathe, “dirt came pouring into my nose and mouth with the force of water flowing from a hose.”

She survived. But she lost every member of her family. They died over the course the following months and years, either from their wounds from the blast or radiation poisoning, or in the case of her parents, leukemia that killed them decades later.  As an adult Yasui’s reflections explore “not only the obvious physical suffering caused by the bomb, but also the instantaneous extermination of all living things, the tragic breakdown of family systems, the destruction of the city itself, and the scars that such an enormous shock left on our hearts.”

The plutonium for the bomb that dropped on Nagasaki, called “Fat Man” by its designers, was made at Hanford.

Perched on the Columbia River in south-central Washington State, Hanford is dry and hot, a place now pock-marked with “cocooned” nuclear reactors and deep pits to bury the waste.  The multiple locations and facilities used for weapons plutonium at Hanford are in a decades-long decontamination and cleanup process with no end in sight. It will take millennia – a scale of thought that doesn’t seem present at Hanford. The radioactive half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,000 years.  For uranium-238 it is 4.5 billion.

Together with staff from Hanford Challenge, a whistleblower and cleanup watchdog group, I recently visited the Hanford nuclear site, now on its way to becoming part of the national park system.

Coupled with a recognition of the human impacts of the bomb, the physical landscape of Hanford contributes to the feeling that one is visiting a site of holocaust.  The rail facilities, the stark, secretive concrete reactors with high exhaust stacks, the hot desolate sun, all contribute.

The park tour gives a sanitized version of cleanup efforts (if you you’ll forgive the pun), showing visitors the facilities used to clean contaminated groundwater, industrial buildings, and other parts of the site polluted from plutonium made for the bomb.

B-Reactor Face

B-Reactor Face

Disturbingly, the content of the tour that focuses on wartime production is celebratory. It revels in the scientific and engineering achievement of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to develop and deploy nuclear weapons.  The tour asks no tough questions about the use of the bomb, the ongoing impacts of radiological contamination on workers and the environment, nor the problems of working with material and on timeframes that are unquestionably outside of our control, and perhaps our understanding.

Information presented in the tour is selective. For example, Albert Einstein is mentioned for his encouragement to explore nuclear weapons in a famous letter delivered to President Roosevelt early in the project. Although this was Einstein’s only involvement, he called it his “single act” on the effort, his name is used repeatedly.  No mention is made of his deep regret – he called the letter the “one great mistake of my life” – of his subsequent and repeated condemnation of “the use of the atomic bomb against Japan,” nor of his lifelong commitment to pacifism. He called the atomic bomb the “most abominable means” available to humankind. Coupled with the possibility of “inevitable war” if current trends continued, he wrote that the bomb and warfare would “spell universal destruction” and hence should be avoided at all costs.

There are a great many other examples that diminish the Hanford tour’s credibility. Tour guides, for example, present the decision to drop the bomb as a military necessity, even though the scholarly consensus and the record from key war-planners says otherwise.  (See Gar Alperovitz’s book on the topic).  Another problem not mentioned is the ongoing human impacts and safety issues, made plain by numerous whistleblowers from the site.

On the Hanford site tour there is no thought given to Sachiko Yasui or the other victims in Nagasaki. She deserves our attention. With a “sense of responsibility for the future,” Yasui ties questions of history to the present, asking not only “about tragic destruction, but also about the continuing horror,” that the bomb represents.  With hope she tells us “the Nagasaki atomic bombing is a lesson that was left behind for all humanity, to ensure that such a catastrophe is never repeated. If we do not learn from this lesson of the past, how can we live in peace in the present nuclear era?”

The many problems at Hanford push Yasui’s questions back to us: the tensions between past and present, failures and future possibilities. But the official tour reflects none of this.  By trying to celebrate the technical achievement of Hanford, devoid of larger context and questions, the site’s tour compounds the tragedy, the “shock left in our hearts.”

Until we have a more robust reckoning with the past, Hanford will remain a site of national sorrow.

Michael Reagan studies and teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle.mr

The World Would Not Be the Same

By: Isaac Meyer

Isaac is a PhD student at University of Washington specializing in modern Japan. For more from Isaac, check out his podcast here.

The Manhattan Project, like so much of the Second World War, has its roots in the First. The “war to end all wars” which raged across Europe and around the world from 1914-1918 was the first time any world power seriously considered using aerially-delivered explosives to bomb an enemy into submission. The Germans were the first to make the attempt; hemmed in by Allied blockades and facing a deteriorating military situation where they’d expected rapid victory, the German government deployed its fleet of dirigible airships (zeppelins, in other words) to attack the United Kingdom in 1915. The Allies would eventually respond with bombing raids of their own.

The main gate of Los Alamos, c. 1945

The main gate of Los Alamos, c. 1945

In every case, military leaders expected great results from aerial bombing – the thinking was that, helpless before the destruction raining from the air, enemy leaders would simply surrender. If they did not, they faced the destruction of their nation’s industrial capacity via bombing, and ran the risk that their own populations would rise up and demand an end to the war. However, this goal proved elusive, mostly because of the underdeveloped nature of the era’s weapons technology. German zeppelin raids, for example, killed a total of 556 people across the entire war, compared to around 7000 British dead in the First Battle of Ypres alone.

After the war ended, however, enthusiasm for the idea of winning a war from the air did not dim. And really, who could blame the leaders of the age? The past war had proven how bloody even indecisive victories on the ground could be, and seapower came with its own host of issues – victory via blockade takes a great deal of time in addition to the at best dubious ethics involved in cutting off all the enemy’s trade (including food, medicine, and other essentials). If a war could be won rapidly from the air, could that not potentially be more humane? Military theorists from the Italian Giulio Douhet to the British Sir Hugh Trenchard and the American Billy Mitchell advanced just that argument, and in doing so joined a military tradition stretching back as far as Sherman’s march to the sea and Napoleon’s brutal campaigns – aiming to make war horrible in order to make it short.

At the same time, the new field of atomic science promised tremendous advances in military power (as well as other areas). From the time of Marie Curie, it was understood that radiation was the slow, natural emission of energy from an object; the process released little energy at a given moment, but a great deal of energy over the course of its lifetime. This understanding opened the way to a new idea; what if you could get a radioactive object to emit all of its energy extremely quickly, rather than slowly over the course of many years? In theory, you could have the quantity of energy needed to power a city – or, if you really sped the process up, enough energy to make a bomb.

The first person to suggest the idea of so-called “atomic weapons” was British novelist H.G. Wells; in his 1914 work The World Set Free, Wells described powerful “atomic bombs” that would be part of a horribly apocalyptic conflict so devastating that it convinced mankind of the folly of warfare, ushering in an age of perpetual peace. In the 1920s and 1930s the notion of atomic bombs continued to receive play in academic and popular circles, but it wasn’t until 1934 that the idea became a real possibility. In that year, a Hungarian-born German Jew named Leo Szilard filed a patent in London describing the idea of firing neutrons at a radioactive atom to set off a chain reaction. This idea would form the basis for all subsequent work on nuclear fission – the splitting of radioactive atoms to produce energy – including the atomic bomb. Szilard himself later emigrated to the United States, where he would play a key role in the Manhattan Project.

When the Second World War broke out in September, 1939, all the major belligerent powers had atomic weapons projects. In the Japanese case, the lead scientist, Dr. Nishina Yoshio, eventually convinced the government that the project was not feasible; he said that current resources and technology were not adequate for the development of atomic weapons. In an ironic twist of fate, Nishina would be dispatched to Hiroshima on August 7, 1945 and would eventually be the one to inform the Japanese government that the Americans had proven him wrong. Nazi Germany began its program in the 1930s, but was hampered by a lack of resources as well as the project’s own staff. The chief scientist on the German project, Werner Heisenberg, was more interested in partying on the government dime and building a nuclear power infrastructure than trying to build a weapon – though Heisenberg himself attributed the failure of the project to a deliberate decision on his part to try to prevent Hitler from obtaining a bomb. Whatever the reason, Heisenberg’s failure saved his life; in 1944, the United States dispatched former Boston Red Sox catcher and wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operative Moe Berg to neutral Switzerland to hear a talk given by Heisenberg. If the talk gave Berg the impression that Germany was close to the completion of its own nuclear weapon, then Berg was under orders to assassinate Heisenberg. It did not, and as a result Heisenberg walked away unscathed.

Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein working on their letter to President Roosevelt

Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein working on their letter to President Roosevelt

In the United States, what became the Manhattan Project got its start in August, 1939, with a letter co-authored by Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein to sitting President Franklin Roosevelt. The letter warned of the potential of atomic weapons and noted that Germany was pursuing the weapons as well. Einstein and Szilard did not recommend an American attempt to “race” the Germans to a completed bomb; instead, they merely suggested closer coordination between American physics laboratories and the government to ascertain the potential danger of such a weapon. However, President Roosevelt decided to take the idea further and ordered the development of atomic weaponry for the United States (eventually, the US program was merged with other Allied programs in Canada and the United Kingdom). Eventually 19 sites across the US and Canada were linked to the project (the three most important being the Oak Ridge Facility in Tennessee, the central laboratory at Los Alamos, and the Hanford site).

Oppenheimer (left) and Groves (right) at the site of the Trinity Tes

Oppenheimer (left) and Groves (right) at the site of the Trinity Tes

The history of the Manhattan Project in total is far too great in scope to recount here; suffice it to say that by 1945 its success was assured. However, the more complex plutonium weapons constructed using material enriched at Hanford had the potential to fail in actual field use, so project director J. Robert Oppenheimer wanted a field test to ensure the design would work. At 5:30 AM on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer, along with other scientific and military observers, saw the first nuclear explosion in history when a plutonium bomb was detonated in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The “Trinity” Test, so known because the operational code name used for the test was Operation Trinity, was a complete success.

Reactions among the observers varied widely. A New York Times reporter named William Laurence, sent under strict secrecy to document the moment for posterity, recalled loud cries of victory filling the air during the blast. Oppenheimer himself famously recalled a quote from the Bhagavad Gita, though sources differ as to which one he chose. In earlier recollections, he said that the moment brought to mind one verse: “if the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” Later, he would recall something different: We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince Arjuna that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” However, Oppenheimer’s mood was apparently not entirely contemplative. Isidor Rabi recalled after the test of Oppenheimer: “I’ll never forget his walk. I’ll never forget the way he stepped out of the car…his walk was like High Noon… this kind of strut. He had done it.” Others had a far simpler reaction. Harvard Professor Kenneth Bainbridge simply turned to Oppenheimer and said, “now we are all sons of bitches.”

The Trinity test, 16 milliseconds after detonation

The Trinity test, 16 milliseconds after detonation

Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.

Artists and creative thinkers play an essential role in shaping public perspective and sparking the imagination. French artist, Edgar Degas once said: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”. Art can influence our perspectives, record popular history, inspire us to act, spark critical debate, and help us envision a different world. Throughout history, we’ve seen art play a dynamic role in politics, social movements and other important events.

Throughout the 20th century, poster art provided visual records of events as they unfolded or wished to be remembered. Artful pieces chronicled important events of the Iranian Revolution, highlighted human rights violations during the Vietnam War, and were often used as propaganda by governments to influence public decision-making. Now, these posters still serve an important purpose to provide insight into an era passed and guide our interpretation of history.

poster art

Left to Right: Iranian Poster – From ‘In Search of Lost Causes’ collection, Vietnamese Propoganda Poster from Ha Noi, U.S. WWII Propaganda Poster by U.S. Office of War Information, Civil Rights Era Sanitation Worker Poster – ‘I am a Man’

Protest songs have proved timeless. Legends such as Pete Seeger championed the causes of international disarmament, civil rights and environmental justice. He always saw his music as a way to bring people together “… and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action”. Songs like We Shall Overcome originated as a spiritual hymn in the early 20th century by Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley and transformed into an overture for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Today, “We Shall Overcome” is sung as a reminder for how far we have come and how far we still need to go. Even in 2015, it is sung to inspire the masses at rallies, marches, and on picket lines.

Street art has also played an important role in making thought-provoking pieces accessible to everyone. Street art typically comes from within communities to provoke critical thought. It can look like wheat-pasted posters, sticker art, pop-up art, street installation, and video projection.  Artists such as Banksy have captured international attention for satirical graffiti. His artwork interrupts the daily grind and incorporates (sometimes) less visible global problems into the day-to-day lives of average people.

Left to Right: Broken Promises by John Fekner, If Graffiti Changed Anything by Banksy, Israeli-Palestinian Wall by Banksy, The Homeless Projection on Civil Rights Monument by Krzysztof Wodiczko

Left to Right: Broken Promises by John Fekner, If Graffiti Changed Anything by Banksy, Israeli-Palestinian Wall by Banksy, The Homeless Projection on Civil Rights Monument by Krzysztof Wodiczko

What about Hanford?  Some artists have already started tackling the complex problems of the Hanford site through photography, literature, painting, sculpture, and theater. Their work is impacting the way cleanup efforts are remembered, sharing lessons learned, and have the potential to inspire future environmentalists and social advocates.

Beginning in 1980, American photographer Emmet Gowin captured national attention with his photographs of strip-mining sites, Hanford, and nuclear testing fields. He tried to capture “scars” in natural landscapes. His first flight over the Hanford Reservation was, in his own words, “a flight that changed my whole perception of the age in which I live…What I saw, imagined, and now know, was that a landscape had been created that could never be saved…The astonishing thing to me is that in spite of all we have done, the earth still offers back so much beauty, so much sustenance. So much of what we need is embodied in it”. Gowin’s images speak for themselves and force viewers to come to their own conclusions about the Hanford site.

By: Emmet Gowin

By: Emmet Gowin

In 2012, Kathleen Flenniken drew upon her experiences as an engineer and lifelong Richland resident to publish a collection of poems, Plume. She explores changing perception, human folly, and the fragility of life as it related to Hanford. She takes the reader through her journey of learning and reflection, highlighting her own lessons learned.

The Particles on the Wall exhibit was first introduced in 2010. Since then it has been traveling the Pacific Northwest, imploring viewers to explore the global implications of Hanford. The pieces were created by a number of artists expressing reflections on everything from plutonium production to long term storage. The pieces are as beautiful as they are evocative. The collection is nuanced in its representation of Hanford’s history, drawing upon many different themes and perspectives.

By: Colleen Clement

By: Colleen Clement

Seattle based Elizabeth Heffron is writing a play that centers on workers at the Hanford site. She takes the audience through a journey of two young tank farm workers, one of whom is “dosed” by radioactive waste. She explores the human emotion associated with such an overwhelming problem while prompting questions about technical issues, institutional policy and worker issues.

All of these works serve a very important purpose – public education and awareness. But art can also hold the potential to ignite the public imagination. It can inspire us to think of what the world around us could look like, evoking images of what “could be”. A vivid public imagination is crucial to a societal problem as large and complex as nuclear production and waste.  What else needs to be seen? We need fresh eyes and new imagination to sustain the coming decades of cleanup.

Join us on August 8, 2015 at 6pm to learn more about Hanford and express your thoughts and reflections through different mediums of art. Supplies will be provided for you to create your piece of Hanford history. Email angiem@hanfordchallenge.org for details.

Whistleblowers at Hanford

By Jackie Yeh, a senior at Charles Wright Academy

What is a whistleblower? Why is the role of whistleblower important? A whistleblower is a person who informs others about an individual or organization that they believe to be engaging in illicit activity. In other words, a whistleblower is somebody who speaks out about an organization that is not doing what it is supposed to be doing. If somebody “blows the whistle,” then they bring attention to a certain aspect of an organization that has not yet been revealed.

Walt and  Sandy Tamosaitis

Walt and Sandy Tamosaitis

Two Hanford whistleblowers I interviewed — Walt Tamosaitis and Donna Busche — shared their concerns about possible negligence at Hanford. According to Walt, if Hanford had followed through on its initial design for the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) and included appropriate safety measures, not as many issues would have arisen. The WTP is a huge facility being designed and built to turn millions of gallons of radioactive tank waste at Hanford into a safer glass form for long-term storage. “For every DOE manager on the project, there are 100-200 contractors underneath each manager, and these contractors are mostly interested in making money, not in handling the project safely or efficiently,” said Walt.

Whistleblowers are important to society because they serve as an impetus for needed change. For instance, Walt, a former scientist at Bechtel, was hired by the government to work on the WTP. However, he was fired after bringing attention to some safety concerns regarding the design of the plant and has now been deemed a “whistleblower.” He has argued that many of the difficulties resulted from management issues. Because of Walt, the media has received more notice of concerns at Hanford, which may help pave the way for positive change. Walt stated that, “Before instituting any kind of new technology, such as nuclear technology, the government must consider the output. People must recognize that they may put something in the box but what comes out can be a devastating discovery.”

In order to follow through with a plan, Hanford must take measures to ensure the safety of workers and to prevent further damage to the environment.

Donna Busche

Donna Busche

Former manager Donna Busche is another one of a long line of whistleblowers at Hanford. Donna was fired after raising some safety concerns at Hanford. She argued that the majority of the safety problems at Hanford involved worker exposure to highly toxic chemicals and gases from the tank farms. Donna explained that pinpointing causes of cancer among workers was extremely difficult, leading to many Hanford workers being denied worker’s compensation.

Ultimately, whistleblowers play a pertinent role in creating change and bringing needed awareness. I admire whistleblowers for having the courage to risk their livelihoods in an effort to create change and maintain their ethics. With more people standing up for what they believe in, more justice can prevail.

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.

Herman_the_Sturgeon-800H

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 angiem@hanfordchallenge.org. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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“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 lizm@hanfordchallenge.org to learn more and get involved with Ladies of Hanford.

By: Emily Bays

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