Hanford, on the Columbia River in Eastern Washington State, is the site where the United States produced the majority of its plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. These tens of thousands of American nuclear weapons were built as an end product of the high levels of plutonium production at Hanford. The first three nuclear reactors on Earth were built at Hanford, with a total of nine nuclear power plants being built there eventually. Nuclear power plants operated for ten years in this world before they were ever used to generate electricity. Electricity is a secondary purpose for nuclear power plants, they were designed and built as plutonium manufacturing plants.
Hanford was the first of these plutonium production sites. The two worst radiological disasters (besides nuclear weapon detonations) in the first four decades of the Atomic Age were accidents at the plutonium production sites of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, both in 1957. Military plutonium production sites remain among the most contaminated sites on Earth. During the period of operation more than 67 metric tons of plutonium were manufactured at Hanford. Hanford is home to 60% (by volume) of all of the high level radioactive waste stored in the United States. Nearly 80% of the Department of Energy’s inventory of spent nuclear fuel rods are stored just 400 yards away from the Columbia River. (Statistics taken from Physicians for Social Responsibility webpage)
The Green Run
In December 1949 the United States deliberately released an immense amount of radiation into populated areas at the Hanford Site during the notorious Green Run. It was the largest intentional release of radiation conducted by the U.S. government. While nuclear testing in Nevada exposed many people to significant amounts of radiation, this was a byproduct of the desire to test weapons. In the Green Run the intention was specifically to release the radiation into the Hanford area. The Green Run was conducted in reaction to the test of the first Soviet nuclear weapon in Kazakhstan several months earlier. The first indications that the Soviets had successfully tested a nuclear weapon came when sensors at Hanford picked up the radiation several days later. It was decided to release radiation “similar” to that of the Soviet test to develop and hone detection equipment and better analysis of the Soviet program.
The Tank Farms
Few things pose as great a threat to public health at Hanford than the Tank Farms. The Tank Farms are 177 single and double shelled waste storage tanks sited at two different locations on the Hanford complex. In the early days at Hanford, when plutonium for nuclear weapons was separated from the spent nuclear fuel, the leftover uranium from the process was stored in these tanks. Over the years a wide range of the highest level radioactive and chemical wastes were dumped into these tanks. According to the State of Washington the 177 tanks hold 53 million gallons of the highest level radioactive waste existing in the United States. 67 of the single shelled tanks have leaked over 1 million gallons of this highly radioactive waste which is migrating through the soil and groundwater into the Columbia River. In 2011 the Department of Energy emptied the contents of many of the leaking single shelled tanks into double shelled tanks, however the design of the double shelled tanks was found to be flawed, resulting in further leaks.
Read more at Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast