The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a pretty amazing place. Located in the present-day southeast corner of Washington State, the area where Hanford sits has a history that actually began thousands of years ago when wild animals roamed free and Indians were the only people who lived, hunted, and fished here. Then, only about 150 years ago, the first White men, who were mostly explorers and fur traders, started to come to the area. They found wide open land to build homes, pleasant temperatures throughout the year, and lots of water and fish in the Columbia River. By the early 1900’s, two small farming communities called White Bluffs and Hanford had been formed.
White Bluffs and Hanford were pretty typical of small towns in the early 1900’s. Many of the residents were farmers, although some people operated small businesses and stores. Some of the homes didn’t even have indoor toilets! Then, World War II started. Just like the rest of America, the residents of White Bluffs and Hanford helped out with the war effort where they could. Yet, with the fighting taking place thousands of miles away, the residents of these two towns had no way of knowing that they would end up playing a major role in the war’s outcome. Their place in history was sealed in December of 1942, when people living in White Bluffs and Hanford might have seen an airplane flying over their homes. There were only a few passengers on that plane, but the people on that plane changed the lives of the White Bluffs and Hanford residents forever.
One of the passengers was a man named Franklin Mathias who was a Colonel in the United States Army. He had been ordered to find a place for a secret World War II project. Colonel Mathias was told to find a place that had lots of wide open land, lots of water, and not very many people living there. When Colonel Mathias flew over White Bluffs and Hanford, he knew right away that he had found what he was looking for. Unfortunately for the residents of White Bluffs and Hanford, the project was going to be so secret, that they would have to move away. The government didn’t want very many people to know what kind of work was being done there. So, every person living in White Bluffs and Hanford packed their belongings in early 1943 and left.
The secret World War II project was to build some facilities that would produce a material called plutonium. Plutonium is needed to make atomic bombs, which are bombs that are stronger and cause more damage than regular bombs do. Unfortunately, plutonium isn’t easy to make. You have to build special factories called nuclear reactors to make plutonium, and when you do, you also end up making a lot of garbage and waste products too.
After months of construction, the nuclear reactors were completed and they began making plutonium. The work was dangerous because plutonium is a “radioactive” material. Whenever something is radioactive, the people who work with it have to wear special clothing or else they might get sick if the material got on their skin or the workers breathed in too much of it. Plutonium can even contaminate buildings where it’s made.
By the middle of 1945, about ten months after the nuclear reactors started working, they had made enough plutonium for an atomic bomb called “Fat Man”. The “Fat Man” bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, Japan in August of 1945, and it caused so much damage that World War II ended only a few days later.
After World War II ended, Hanford nuclear reactors continued to make plutonium for other bombs, and they kept doing that work until 1987. After more than forty years of making plutonium, lots of garbage and waste was also produced at Hanford.
Today, the scientists and engineers at Hanford are busy cleaning up all of the garbage and waste that was made while the nuclear reactors were making plutonium. There are all kinds of wastes to clean up at Hanford. Some of the garbage is solid, consisting of things like broken equipment or old clothes. Some of the garbage is in liquid form, and it’s so dangerous that if even one drop fell on your hand, it might burn all the way through it! Almost all of the waste is buried in the ground or held in underground containers.
Just like the workers who had to be careful and wear special clothing when they worked around the plutonium, all of the solid and liquid waste is considered to be dangerous too. Workers have to take special precautions to make sure that they don’t get sick while cleaning up the garbage. They often have to wear suits kind of like scuba divers do, so that they can breathe clean air instead of air that might make the workers sick.
Sometimes, the workers will dig up some garbage, and discover that the ground below the garbage has also been contaminated by the waste. When that happens, the crews have to remove any dirt or soil that is polluted and properly throw it away.
Besides the garbage on the Site, crews are also busy tearing down the old buildings that used to be important, but are now mostly closed and empty. They’re also doing work which protects the Columbia River from any underground, liquid waste getting into it.
Since Hanford is so big, consisting of more than 580 square miles (about half of the size of the state of Rhode Island), it is expected that cleaning up the Site will take many years before it is done. All of the solid waste that has been buried must be dug up and safely disposed of. All of the waste liquids must be pumped out of storage tanks and into a facility called the Waste Treatment Plant. The Waste Treatment Plant will turn the liquid waste into solid, glass logs which can be safely stored for thousands of years without harming people or the environment. The liquid waste that has soaked into the ground will also have to be cleaned up. With so many projects going on, it’s expected that Hanford will not be completely cleaned up until about 2052.