Inside America's most toxic nuclear waste dump, where 56 million gallons of buried radioactive sludge are leaking into the earth

James Pasley
The stacks of two Department of Energy production reactors fall in a simultaneous demolition at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash., Saturday, Aug. 14, 1999.

Jackie Johnston / AP


  • Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the most polluted area in the United States. Buried beneath the complex is 56 million gallons of radioactive waste that need to be dealt with. 
  • The reservation produced the plutonium for Fat Man, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in Japan, as well as for the United States' atomic weapon stockpile during the Cold War. 
  • In June 2019, President Trump's administration announced it would downgrade the threat levels of some radioactive waste to save the government $40 billion on cleanup
  • The announcement has been criticized as a way to make cleaning up nuclear waste easier, without actually doing the clean-up part. 
  • Trump's administration also wants to cut Hanford's funding by $416 million. But the cleanup needs more funding, not less. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Sitting on 586 square miles of desert in Washington, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the most toxic place in America.

Buried beneath the ground, in storage tanks, are 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Many of them are leaking into the ground.

According to NBC, some nuclear experts have said Hanford is "an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen."

Hanford produced the plutonium to build Fat Man, the atomic weapon that was detonated above Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and for the United States's nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.

In 1989, after years of dismissing concerns about contamination, the reservation's management finally admitted the site needed to be cleaned up. But cleaning up nuclear waste is difficult. It can't be burned or buried. The plan is to build a waste management plant that will turn the waste into glass, which can be stored away for thousands of years. It's a slow, costly process. 

As The Daily Beast reported, "Hanford is the worst kind of mess: the kind that humanity is capable of making, but not capable of cleaning up."

The longer the contaminated materials are left, the worse they become. Here's what the nuclear reservation is like. 

Hanford is built on a desert in Washington, spread out over 586 squares miles.

AP

The government was wary of the repercussions of a major incident and chose an isolated location, away from cities on the East Coast. But it's in an area prone to wildfires and possible earthquakes.

The last big earthquake in the area was in 1936. But another sizeable one could release radiation, like what happened with the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.



The Columbia River passes Hanford to the north and the east by a few miles, and it's downstream from two dams.

Elaine Thompson / AP

The government wanted the site to be close to dams for electricity, and close to the river so it had a source of cool liquid to cool the reactors

In 2017, the EPA said contaminated groundwater was flowing freely into the river. 

 



The Hanford Nuclear Reservation began operating on September 6, 1944.

Hulton-Deutsch / Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis / Getty

Hanford played a vital part in the top-secret Manhattan Project, which was the government's research and development program for nuclear weapons. 

The government purchased the land in 1943, and gave about 1,500 people 30 days to leave

 



The first reactor was built in 11 months, and the majority of the 50,000 person workforce did not know what it was that they were working on...

Wikimedia

Sources: Court House News, Los Angeles Times



...until the first nuclear bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Elaine Thompson / AP

Source: Court House News



To keep the nuclear complex secret, the government banned trespassing and set up a buffer zone called Hanford Reach.

Elaine Thompson / AP

Instead of the land being developed by farmers and ranchers, it's been left untouched for 75 years, and wildlife has boomed. In 2000, former President Bill Clinton made the 195,000 acre area a National Monument.

In the area, there are herds of elk, Chinook salmon breed in stretches of the river in Autumn, and there is also an abundance of birds, including burrowing owls, Swainson hawks, and sagebrush sparrows. 



The "B" reactor was the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. This is its control room.

Ted S. Warren / AP

It was the "B" reactor that produced the first plutonium in the United States. The first supply of plutonium was delivered to the army on February 2 1945



Hanford's plutonium was used in the Trinity Test, the first detonated nuclear bomb, and in Fat Man, the nuclear bomb was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945.

Photographer: U.S. Airforce via Wikipedia

Source: Tri-City Herald



After World War II, there was a brief production hiatus. But in 1948, plutonium became a priority again.

Wikimedia

This time it was to supply the US with a nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. Five more reactors were built by 1955.  Production would continue on into the late 1980s.

 



When the plant was up and running, using nine nuclear reactors and five reprocessing plants, it produced about 65% of the plutonium used by the US government.

Nat Farbman / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

The reactors weren't all built at once, but over a twenty year period from 1943 to 1963

 



Hanford produced 67 metric tons of plutonium in all, and was responsible for a large part of the 60,000 nuclear weapons made by the US by 1987.

Smith Collection / Gado / Getty

Sources: The Atlantic, New York Times



But producing the plutonium came at a cost. Even a small batch would result in a huge amount of contaminated waste.

Roger Ressmeyer / Corbis / VCG / Getty

Source: Hanford

 



Solid waste can be anything from contaminated tools, to clothing, or broken equipment.

Jackie Johnston / AP

While liquid waste is usually contaminated water or sludge, which is described as having the same consistency as peanut butter



Signs of Hanford's impact on on the environment were noticeable as early as in 1960, when a 55-foot whale, killed off the coast of Oregon, was radiating gamma rays.

Rob Baer/Alaska Department of Fish and Game via AP

Scientists suspected it had eaten irradiated plankton contaminated from waste products that had floated down the Columbia River into the sea. 

 



Admittedly, it was new territory for the US. Here, Homer Moulthorp wears one of the suits he invented to stop employees from getting radiation poisoning.

Nat Farbman / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

The plastic suit was nicknamed "Homer's Hideous Hallucination." Before that, the employees had to wear heavy clothing that had to be buried after being used once.



To monitor radiation poisoning, scientists working at the complex tested animals, including rats, cats, dogs, cows, sheep, pigs, and alligators.

Wikimedia

The tests were to try and work out what effect radiation would have on people. In 2007, 40,000 tons of dead animals and manure were uncovered from trenches in Hanford, including 18 alligators. Of the waste, 95% of it was contaminated manure



Because it was a new kind of science, much of the nuclear waste was mismanaged and improperly disposed of.

Mason / AP

When Hanford first produced nuclear waste, workers simply took contaminated clothes and tools and buried them in the desert, without recording where. This made the cleaning process difficult in the years to come, since the area is so large, and there's no way for sure to know what's buried where. 



Hanford had different processes for different wastes — slightly contaminated liquids went into ponds, solid waste was buried, and some gases were released into the air.

Jackie Johnston / AP

Across the reserve, there are 1,600 waste sites. 24 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste is buried in trenches and tunnels. 

 



But the most concerning is the highly radioactive waste that was stored in 177 storage tanks, each holding between 55,000 and 100,000 gallons.

Wikimedia

The first 149 tanks were built with a single-shell of steel. In 1968, officials developed a new double-shelled model, storing waste in 26 of them.

Altogether, the tanks contain twice the radioactivity of what was released during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Russia. By 1989, 68 of the 149 tanks had leaked.

In 2010, Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department official, said enough plutonium was buried at Hanford to create 1,800 bombs the size of what was detonated on Nagasaki. 



Along with the tanks, cesium and strontium capsules are stored in water in the reserve.

US Department of Energy / AP

Strontium is also called "bone seeker" because it remains in people's bones once ingested and increases their risk of getting cancer. 



In 1989, the Tri-Party Agreement was signed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Washington State Department of Ecology to clean up the area.

Roger Ressmeyer / Corbis / VCG / Getty

By then Hanford was no longer making plutonium. From the mid-1960s, reactors had been shutting down until the last one closed in 1987. It was exclusively a massive environmental hazard that needed to be cleaned up.



Despite the agreement, what would follow would be a slow, often halting, attempt to clean up the most toxic place in America, at a cost of $2 billion a year.

Jeff T. Green / Getty

Source: The Guardian



No longer a nuclear weapons factory, nuclear reactor stacks were knocked down...

Jackie Johnston / AP

Source: Hanford



... And reactors were sealed off from the world, also known as being "fully cocooned."

Nicholas K. Geranios / AP

They will remain like this for 75 years, until radiation falls to a safe level and they can be disposed. 

 



In 1998, after 50 years of saying that leaks from the tanks were insignificant, management admitted that was not the case.

Roger Ressmeyer /Corbis / VCG / Getty

Management also said it would take 10,000 years before the waste would reach groundwater, but it had already reached it.

According to the New York Times, it was only after a million gallons of waste had leaked into the ground, which the Energy Department didn't know how to fix, that it said more information was necessary. A year earlier, the plant fired an employee after he spoke about the issue "too vigorously."

 



Despite no longer producing plutonium the surrounding areas continued to feel the effects of the nuclear waste.

Jackei Johnston / AP

In 2000, wildfires threatened the complex, and Washington's Department of Health reported a rise in plutonium levels in the area, although the levels were not life-threatening. The increase was thought to be spread by dust and ash. There have also been issues with radioactive wasp nests, fruit flies, and rabbits. 

When radioactive rabbit droppings were found in the area, it was protocol to set traps to kill the rabbits. 



Radioactive tumbleweeds rolling across the reservation also caused issues in the early 2000s.

Jackie Johnston / AP

When the Russian thistle decayed and broke from its roots, which could go 20 feet into the ground, the radioactive thistles could roll for up to four miles and spread nuclear radiation. 



In 2002, work began on Hanford Vit Plant, a waste treatment plant, which is the key to cleaning up Hanford.

Ted S. Warren / AP

The treatment plant will turn the waste into glass, which can then be stored safely for several thousand years. It's expected to convert more than 50 billion gallons of contaminated waste. But it's not meant to begin processing until 2036, and it will take years to get through all of the waste

It's also been plagued with uncertainty around what form the waste will be in when it flows through pipes, which led to halting construction in 2012 until the issue could be sorted out. 



In 2009, Hanford began offering tours to show the facilities and the famous "B" reactor. The tours are popular — in 2016, 10,000 people went on them.

Shannon Dininny / AP

It's deemed safe for tourists. Although it probably isn't quite as exciting as a tour around Chernobyl

 



It's also become a tourist destination for kayakers on the Columbia River.

Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times / Getty

In 2008, Columbia Kayak Adventures ran two to three tours each month, which The Los Angeles Times described as "a theme park next to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant."

As for radiation on and in the river, health officials said fish tested for radiation posed no health risk, while environmental groups said there was a risk for people who regularly swam and fished in the river.



Even as the complex continues to deteriorate. In 2013, new leaks were discovered in several underground tanks.

Ted S. Warren / AP

While management already knew that one tank was leaking, at a rate of up to 300 gallons of waste every year, the discovery that five more were also leaking was especially concerning. 

As The Daily Beast put it, while nuclear sludge dripping into the soil and mixing with groundwater might sound apocalyptic to many people, to those familiar with Hanford it's just another mishap, of which there have been many



In 2015, Doug Shoop, the Energy Department's top official at the reservation, said infrastructure was breaking down, and more nuclear radiation would be released.

Nicholas K. Geranios / AP

Source: Business Insider



Shoop was right. In 2017, a tunnel storing radioactive waste collapsed.

DOE; Business Insider

It was covered up again by workers and no contamination was detected, but the EPA said more tunnels would collapse as the equipment deteriorated



The Department of Energy has said that Hanford's 10,000 workers are still at risk. Here, a worker is checked for radiation.

Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times / Getty

Sources: NBC, Peninsula Daily News



In 2016, 61 employees were exposed to vapors from leaking tanks, two years after a report that there was a "causal link" between the vapors and lung and brain damage.

Jeff T. Green / Getty

Source: NBC



The Department of Energy wanted to dispose of all of the underground waste by 2047, but that's unlikely.

Elaine Thompson / AP

It's now looking more like 2079 or 2102. In February 2019, the department released a new estimate of how much the process would cost. It had leaped from $110 billion to $660 billion.



And while costs are rising, President Trump wants to cut annual funding for the clean-up by $416 million.

Associated Press/Evan Vucci

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said the cleanup wouldn't be done for another 300 years if Trump's budget goes through. 

Trump's administration also wants to reclassify high-level waste as low-level to cut costs. 



Environmentalists won't stop fighting for the cleanup, but Tom Hanford, executive director of the watchdog Hanford Challenge, says that all the waste is never going to be dug up.

Jeff T. Green / Getty

He told The Atlantic in 2018 that the majority of Hanford's waste was going nowhere. "Hanford is going to be a national sacrifice zone for hundreds of years," he said.