The lambs were born without eyes or mouths. Some had legs that had grotesquely grown together; others had no legs at all. Many were stillborn. Thirty-one were lost in a single night.
On a pasture nearby, a cow was found dead, stiff and with its hooves bizarrely stretched up into the whispering wind. Down by the river, men of the Yakama tribe pulled three-eyed salmon from the Columbia. Trout were covered in cancerous ulcers.
And then the babies started getting sick.
America was proud of Hanford.[...]But, today, that pride has turned into horror. The farmers in the area and people in Richland and the two neighboring towns, Pasco and Kennewick — known collectively as the Tri-Cities — are among the most highly radiated humans on earth.
It is a horrifying legacy. Fifty-two buildings at Hanford are contaminated, and 240 square miles are uninhabitable due to the radioactivity that has seeped into the soil and ground water: uranium, cesium, strontium, plutonium and other deadly radionuclides. Altogether, more than 204,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste remain on site — two-thirds of the total for the entire US.
In addition, thousands upon thousands of workers, residents and farmers were deliberately contaminated — for testing purposes.
On December 3, 1949, Hanford physicists released a highly radioactive cloud through the smokestack of the so-called T-Plant, the world’s largest plutonium factory at the time. The radiation was almost 1,000 times more than what was released during the 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the worst nuclear accident in American history. Fallout from the experiment, which was called “Green Run,” drifted all the way to California. People wondered why they suddenly got sick.
Studies would eventually show that some babies at Hanford were radiated twice as much as the children of Chernobyl.
And then, of course, there’s still the active reactor. Online since 1984, it’s considered one of the less safe nuclear reactors in the United States. After the catastrophe in Japan, its operator, the utility consortium Energy Northwest, claimed that the plant has several backup systems and could withstand a 6.9-magnitude earthquake.
Last year, there were 210 earthquakes in the Hanford area, the strongest measuring 3.0. But the fact that they aren’t so severe does little to reassure environmentalists. “The leaking underground tanks and the contaminated groundwater moving toward the river mean a radioactive future for the river unless the mess can be cleaned up in time to avoid a serious radiological disaster,” says Glen Spain, a regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). “The legacy of vast amounts of nuclear waste … is still a ticking time bomb.”
A replica of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, fueled with plutonium made at Hanford would hang above visitors.
Visitors would learn some basic science to understand the production of plutonium at Hanford, done when producing plutonium had advanced little beyond laboratory demonstrations. Another area of the exhibit would focus on B Reactor, telling the story of the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor.[...]But many of the questions docents at CREHST receive now, particularly from people outside the Tri-Cities, are about the environmental contamination and cleanup of Hanford and people would not find that information at the proposed Hanford exhibit, several said.
Hanford has an “evil reputation” among those on the West side of the state, and about 20 to 30 percent of visitors are worried, said Cal Heeb, a docent.
Other people at the meeting said information is needed to put Hanford’s risk in perspective, particularly as its leak-prone waste tanks make national news.
It comes down to money, Toomey said. Initially, there only is money to tell the Manhattan Project story, she said.
But there will be other opportunities beyond physical exhibits to learn more about Hanford, she said. Lectures and themed events, like mess hall meals, are planned, she said.