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understand the PAST

Understand the PAST

White Bluffs Street, 1938

Before the Reactors

For centuries, several Native American tribes lived on land bordering the Columbia River. Remnants, artifacts and burial sites associated with historical Native American activity are documented throughout the Hanford Site and protected by law.

The mid-1800s brought pioneers and settlers to the Mid-Columbia. The small towns of White Bluffs and Hanford sprang up to support the farms and ranches of early residents. When the War Department decided to locate portions of the Manhattan Project in this part of Washington, it also decided work to develop atomic weapons had to be done in secret.

Subsequently, in early 1943, the government gave all White Bluffs and Hanford residents 30 days to evacuate their homes and abandon their farms, and offered a small amount of money to do so.

After residents of White Bluffs and Hanford relocated, the War Department began recruiting workers to build nuclear reactors and processing facilities required to extract plutonium for atomic weapons.

Named for a key Army Corps of Engineers official in Manhattan, New York, the Manhattan Project name did not draw attention to its atomic bomb mission.


Hanford Construction

Like a small city, the Hanford camp included people from all over the country, ultimately forming a 51,000-person workforce. The Hanford Construction Camp hastily established at the Hanford townsite housed most construction workers. At its peak occupancy in 1944, Hanford was reportedly the fourth largest city in Washington.

Residents had access to amenities such as a commercial store, fruit packing warehouses, railroad depot, church and high school. There were also banks, barber and beauty shops, a Sears store and a theater. There were eight cafeterias, each the size of a football field.

  • More than 50 tons of food was served at every meal. Workers could eat all they wanted for 67-cents per meal.
  • 272,000 pounds of processed meat (ready for oven or grill) used weekly.
  • 30,000 doughnuts eaten daily.
  • 700 cases of Coke drank daily.
  • 12,000 turkeys cooked for Thanksgiving.

Over 30 months, Hanford workers built 554 buildings, 386 miles of road, 158 miles of railroad, dozens of large underground tanks for radioactive and chemical waste, three massive plutonium extraction plants and the world's first three production-scale nuclear reactors.

1943 - 1945

The world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor

Workers completed design and construction of the world's first plutonium producing reactor (B Reactor) in 11 months. The B Reactor produced plutonium used in the Trinity Test, as well as for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. At the direction of the Atomic Energy Commission, the B Reactor was shut down on Feb. 12, 1968.

B Reactor operations included more than 30 buildings and 20 service facilities. From 1969 through 2006, crews dismantled and removed all except the reactor building, main exhaust stack and river pump house, which still pumps water used for modern site activities. As recently as 2008, plans called for the B Reactor and its exhaust stack to be dismantled as part of Hanford cleanup.

The B Reactor was named a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1976, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1994, and became a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 2008. At the ceremony conferring NHL status on the facility, the acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE) stood with the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior and announced a policy change for B Reactor. Its new path would be preservation and public access. For more information, visit the Manhattan Project B Reactor website.

1944 - 1989

Producing Plutonium

Under careful supervision of noted scientists like Enrico Fermi, crews began the process of building production reactors at Hanford. Workers also built two massive processing facilities called "canyons," to extract plutonium from uranium "fuel rods" after removal from the reactors.

The plutonium production era included three main operating areas. In the 300 Area, crews fabricated uranium metal into fuel rods for the reactors. The 300 Area fabricated more than 20 million of these fuel rods over 40 years. Trains transported the rods to the 100 Area, along the Columbia River, where workers loaded them into the reactors and nuclear fission converted some of the uranium to plutonium.

Fuel rods moved by train to the 200 Area, where massive plants dissolved them and processed the liquid to concentrate the plutonium. The location of the three areas kept them separated by several miles for safety and security.

Employees knew little to nothing about the project they worked on, only that it was going to help the United States win the war. Hanford employees believed they were doing important war work, but beyond that, knew few details.

Hanford's ultimate triumph came with the nuclear explosion above Japan in August 1945, effectively ending World War II.

After a short lull, production ramped up in 1947 to meet the challenges of the "Cold War" and continued until 1987 when the last reactor ceased operation.

President John F. Kennedy visited the Hanford Nuclear to dedicate the groundbreaking of the steam generator for the N-reactor
1946 - 1991

Cold War

Post-World War II tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. brought about the "Cold War" and drove continued atomic weapons production and Hanford's plutonium production mission. Additional reactors constructed next to the Columbia River allowed the U.S. to develop and stockpile nuclear weapons.

In 1959, construction began on the last Hanford reactor, dubbed "N." A dual-purpose facility, N Reactor produced plutonium for atomic weapons as well as steam for generating electricity. It was the only dual-purpose reactor in the United States and was so advanced that President John F. Kennedy came to Hanford in September 1963 for its dedication.

Starting in the mid 60's through 1971, the Hanford workforce shut down older reactors, leaving only N Reactor operating. N Reactor continued its mission of producing plutonium and electricity until 1987. Since that time, Hanford's mission shifted to clean up decades of weapons production activities.


Signing of the Tri-Party Agreement

Weapons production processes left solid and liquid wastes that posed a risk to the local environment, including the Columbia River.

In 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Washington State Department of Ecology entered into a legally binding accord, the Tri-Party Agreement (TPA), to clean up the Hanford Site.

The Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order, or Tri-Party Agreement, is an agreement for achieving compliance with the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) remedial action provisions and with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) treatment, storage and disposal unit regulations and corrective action provisions. More specifically, the Tri-Party Agreement 1) defines and ranks CERCLA and RCRA cleanup commitments, 2) establishes responsibilities, 3) provides a basis for budgeting and 4) reflects a concerted goal of achieving full regulatory compliance and remediation with enforceable milestones in an aggressive manner.

Representatives signed the comprehensive cleanup and compliance agreement on May 15, 1989.

Early 1990s

Start of Cleanup

With the end of plutonium production on the Hanford Site after the conclusion of the Cold War, the mission changed from production to environmental cleanup.
  • Producing plutonium created about 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste, stored in 177 large underground tanks built over the decades (pictured).
  • Tanks range in size from 55,000 gallons to over a million gallons.
  • Production also resulted in millions of cubic feet of solid waste and billions of gallons of less contaminated liquids discharged to disposal trenches and ponds, contaminating the groundwater and hundreds of facilities.

When cleanup began, goals included:

  • Removing radioactive/hazardous materials
  • Demolishing facilities
  • Digging up contaminated soil and solid waste for transport to an engineered disposal facility
  • Pumping and treating groundwater to remove contaminants
  • Managing and treating Hanford's 56 million gallons of chemical and radioactive waste.

1990s - 2000s

River Corridor Cleanup

The River Corridor includes the former fuel fabrication facilities at Hanford’s 300 Area, just north of the city of Richland, and nine former plutonium production reactors along the Columbia River. The reactor areas are also known as the 100 Areas. The 220-square-mile River Corridor region sits adjacent to a 50-plus-mile stretch of the Columbia River.

The cleanup of the River Corridor mainly involved the decommissioning, decontamination and demolition of contaminated facilities, clean up and removal of contaminated soil and debris from waste sites, and groundwater treatment. Workers have been cleaning up the hazards that most directly threaten the nearby Columbia River, with tremendous progress being made since 2005. To date, workers have cocooned seven reactors, remediated more than 1,000 waste sites, removed more than 600 tons of contaminants from groundwater, and treated more than 32 billion gallons of groundwater.


Advancing the Cleanup Mission

For more than 40 years, reactors at Hanford produced plutonium for America's defense program.

The process of making plutonium was extremely inefficient, in that only a small amount of plutonium was produced while generating a massive amount of liquid and solid waste. All facilities and structures associated with Hanford's defense mission must be deactivated, decommissioned, decontaminated and demolished. That environmental cleanup project is the effort of about 10,000 Hanford workers are involved in today.

To learn more about current cleanup projects, please visit The Present webpage.

Check out the latest Hanford By the Numbers infographic to learn more about the cleanup efforts at Hanford.

Last Updated 07/03/2024 12:46 PM