Hanford Reservation

Hanford Reservation

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The Hanford reservation in eastern Washington State covered more than 600 square miles and had 50 miles of the Columbia River running through it. The world's first plutonium production reactor, designated the B Reactor, was designed by Enrico Fermi and other scientists at the University of Chicago. Construction was the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers, while the facilities were assigned to the DuPont chemical company.The first step was to remove the small number of civilians who lived in the area, mostly clustered along the Columbia. Neither they nor the workers who came afterwards were told what the purpose of the project was until after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.Later in 1943, the B Reactor began producing plutonium. Following the war, B Reactor was mothballed from 1946 to 1948, but it was then restarted and operated continuously until February, 1968.Other reactors were built over the years, as Hanford remained the source of plutonium for America's nuclear weapons program. A complete cleanup of Hanford will take decades and billions of additional dollars.

Hanford, WA

For the Manhattan Project, the Hanford Engineer Works produced plutonium at a roughly 600-square-mile (965 km) site along the Columbia River in Washington state. The Hanford Site was selected because of an abundant supply of cold Columbia river water needed to cool nuclear reactors, ample available hydroelectric power, mild climate, excellent transportation facilities, and distance from major population centers. Workers at the Hanford Site constructed and operated the world’s first nuclear production reactors that produced the plutonium used in the Trinity Test and in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.

This history continues to impact the communities surrounding the Hanford Site. Hanford was a major part of the US nuclear weapons production complex during the Cold War. Advanced technology research facilities still exist throughout the Tri-Cities and numerous places can be visited that were shaped by the Manhattan Project and its ongoing legacy.


On January 16, 1943, General Leslie Groves officially endorsed Hanford as the proposed plutonium production site. Most residents of the affected area, including those living in Hanford, White Bluffs, and Richland, were given 90 days notice to abandon their homes. Homeowners were compensated based on the appraised value of their homes, excluding the value of improvements, crops, and equipment. Many of the landowners rejected initial offers on their land and took the Army to court seeking more acceptable appraisals. Matthias adopted a strategy of settling out of court to save time, time being a more important commodity than money to the Manhattan Project.

The Native American tribes were also displaced. The Wanapum lost access to their traditional home on the Columbia River, and the tribe resettled in Priest Rapids. Access to their traditional fishing areas was at first restricted and then revoked altogether.

As one chapter of the region’s history ended, a new one began. Within three years, the Columbia Basin became a place of global significance.

After the decision to produce plutonium was made, the government needed to draw upon the talent and resources of corporate America to get the job done. General Leslie Groves was familiar with the E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, the major chemical and munitions company founded by Eleuthère Irénée du Pont in 1802. DuPont’s manufacturing history and capabilities were impressive.

DuPont’s managers knew that mass-producing plutonium was to be unlike any challenge they had previously faced. Enrico Fermi’s experimental reactor in Chicago Met Lab had to be scaled up thousands of times. Many technical questions, from how to cool the reactor to how to safely extract plutonium from the spent fuel rods, remained unanswered. There was no time for rigorous testing or a long-term pilot-scale facility. DuPont engineers had to use their best judgment to choose an approach and make it work.

Hanford’s Nuclear Reactors: Photo History

For more than 40 years, the federal government produced plutonium for America's nuclear weapons program at the Hanford nuclear site in southeast Washington. Nine plutonium production reactors were located along the Columbia River. The first reactor, B Reactor, began operation in 1944. Plutonium from B Reactor was used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan at the end of World War II. Plutonium production continued at Hanford for more than four decades the last of the reactors was shut down in 1988.

Hanford's plutonium production process created large amounts of radioactive and chemically hazardous waste. Since plutonium production ended, the focus at Hanford has shifted to waste cleanup.

B Reactor has been preserved as part of the Manhattan Project National Park. The rest of the reactors have been or are being put into a safe storage condition referred to as “cocooning,” where all support buildings are demolished, surface contamination and surplus materials are removed, a new roof is installed, and the reactor is sealed. The cocooned reactor will then sit safely for 75 years or so while radioactivity in the reactor core is reduced through radioactive decay.

Oregon has a tremendous stake in ensuring the safe and timely cleanup of Hanford, which sits on the Columbia River just 35 miles from Oregon’s border. Learn more about our work with Hanford on our website:

Listen to our Grounded podcast episode about Hanford: "The Atomic Man"

Hanford’s nine reactors are located along the river, known as the “100 Area:”

B Reactor – operated 1944 – 1968 (click to open gallery)

Hanford’s Secret Harvest

Built in Hanford, Washington, the B Reactor once had eight plants adjoining it.

AFTER CROSSING MILES of desolate yellow landscape in southeastern Washington state, I halted at the base of a 120-foot behemoth, an enormous edifice of skillfully laid gray bricks holding the artifacts and the ambience of one of the world’s great scientific mysteries. In the long morning shadow cast by a mid-September sun, I shivered as I looked around Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where wartime engineers stealthily sculpted 390 tons of steel and cement to contain the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor. With reverence, I stepped forward and began a Department of Energy-sanctioned tour of Hanford’s
B Reactor, which made the fuel for the first and the third atomic bombs.

The giant structure’s interior suggested an early Space Age science-fiction flick, a sarcophagus of nameless gadgets, flashing lights, and warning signs. I had barely drawn my first breath of dank, musty air when I encountered a bronze bust of Colonel Franklin T. Matthias of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who selected the Hanford site and oversaw
B Reactor’s construction.

Washington may call itself the “Evergreen State,” but the region Matthias encountered in December 1942 was the opposite: a wind-whipped semidesert nurturing little more than sagebrush. Sparse population, an established rail line, safe distance from the vulnerable coast, and access to high volumes of power and water from the Columbia River made Hanford the perfect lab for one of the costliest and riskiest science experiments ever. The terrain—sand and gravel that had washed westward in ice age floods from what is now Montana and come to rest on a thick layer of basalt—made an ideal base for colossal concrete structures.

Standing in the way of construction were a few hundred agricultural entrepreneurs. In the 35 years since their arrival, these hardy growers had harnessed the Columbia, America’s fourth largest river, to irrigate plots of dusty shrub-steppe into orchards and fields that yielded apples, grapes, peaches, pears, strawberries, asparagus, and dryland wheat. The fruits of this cornucopia went to Seattle, 200 miles northwest—that is, until March 1943, when the government informed Hanford-area farmers that under eminent domain an important but unnamed war effort would claim more than 400,000 acres. By June, the agricultural burgs of White Bluffs and Hanford had been plowed under, leaving little more than the name Hanford.

Tour docents seated my group in B Reactor’s makeshift classroom, stirring foggy memories of my high school physics class as they explained how, in 1938, scientists split the nuclei of the element uranium, releasing energy in a reaction called fission. In June 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Manhattan Project, assigning the Corps of Engineers to build clandestine, secure laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, to wrangle that energy into a weapon.

Hanford joined the Manhattan Project roster six months later. Scientists knew that plutonium, a recently discovered man-made element, was not only fissionable but easier to isolate for explosive use than naturally occurring uranium. The trick was making enough plutonium. In December 1942, Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist working in the United States, achieved the first controlled chain nuclear reaction, providing a practicable method.

The result towered before us: a 36-by-36-by-28-foot block of graphite, encased in steel and run through with a network of 2,004 horizontal aluminum tubes. To operate the 1,200-ton reactor, engineers slid thousands of eight-inch slugs of uranium metal fuel into the tubes and manipulated reaction speeds. The result: plutonium. The transformation took an average of 100 days, after which workers cooled the irradiated slugs and shipped them by rail 10 miles south to T Plant. At that facility chemical baths extracted the astonishingly small amount of plutonium each ton of processed uranium yielded eight ounces of weapons-grade stuff.

With class dismissed, we visitors could ramble on our own, armed with only a crude map and adjurations to tread carefully. “When they built this great facility, it was not planned for tourism,” warned docent Larry Haler, who retired in 2011 after 38 years at Hanford. All evidence seconds that caution from the pervasive chill to endless gauges measuring everything from humidity to radiation levels, B Reactor screams, “Watch it!”

The maze of now-deserted hallways and rooms, decommissioned in 1968, was a project of the DuPont Company, which in spring 1943 recruited tradesmen nationwide to build a heavy industrial complex in secret. To accommodate the swarm of workers—45,000 in June 1944—DuPont laid out the world’s largest trailer park and built gender-segregated barracks. A temporary town, Hanford Engineer Works, became the country’s largest voting precinct. Hanford had a brewery, machines able to whip up 1,080 sandwiches an hour, and a baseball league made up of teams representing each trade. Hardly anyone working on the project knew its purpose rumors ranged from airplane fuel to nylon stockings.

An astute visitor will notice that all clocks on the premises read 10:48, the moment on the night of September 26, 1944, when the reactor achieved fission for the first time. In February 1945, army officers aboard passenger trains discreetly relayed a stainless steel flask holding 3.5 ounces of semi-liquid plutonium to bomb designers at Los Alamos. By June, Hanford had shipped the bombsmiths enough plutonium to build two 13.6-pound softball-sized cores. One was used in the Trinity Test device, detonated at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945, the other in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped August 9 on Nagasaki, Japan Three days before, uranium-fueled “Little Boy” had wreaked havoc at Hiroshima.

In the reactor’s valve room, I clambered across metal walkways from which engineers monitored a cooling system designed to pipe nearly 30,000 gallons of Columbia River water a minute through the reactor to prevent overheating. Water entered at 50-some degrees Fahrenheit and a minute later flowed out at about 140 degrees. A retention station cooled the irradiated water for three or four hours before dumping it back into the Columbia, to latter-day environmentalists’ dismay.

Elaborate methods for running the cooling system in a power failure got a test on March 10, 1945, when a Japanese incendiary balloon bomb struck a power line 35 miles south of the reactor. The reactor shut down for only seconds before a coal-fired steam system had the coolant flowing again.

Although B Reactor is best known for its World War II role, an abundance of mint green paint and late-model gas masks confirm that the Cold War kept the operation running into the 1960s. In 1968, B Reactor became the fifth of Hanford’s eight original reactors to close, eclipsed by N Reactor, which stopped producing plutonium in 1987, ending Hanford’s active life. Contractor Mission Support Alliance, which restored
B Reactor for public visitation, started offering tours in 2009. Competition for a seat on the bus is stiff, but access will likely expand: last November, the Hanford site, along with its Oak Ridge and Los Alamos relatives, officially joined the national park system, as the Manhattan Project National Historic Park.

For now, tourists interested in Hanford beyond B Reactor have to settle for blurred glimpses through a tour bus window. Every few miles a cocooned concrete facility or an ill-fated field of blackened stumps interrupts the monotony with a reminder of the region’s defense and agrarian pasts.

Although the nuclear complex erased the original farming communities, Richland, a town on the site’s southern border, grew from 250 residents when DuPont arrived to more than 15,000 by the time a special August 6, 1945, edition of the Richland Villager revealed Hanford’s secret. Richland and nearby Pasco and Kennewick now make up the Tri-Cities, Washington’s fourth largest metropolitan area. The complex at Hanford still dominates the local economy a large number of residents work in the decades-long and continuing environmental clean-up or at scientific enterprises that pepper the dusty acreage. And World War II still resonates in rows of cookie-cutter houses built to shelter that first generation of engineers, and in fans’ “Proud of the Cloud!” cheers for Richland High athletic teams—all of them known as the Bombers.

Clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and preserve its history

Hanford still is one of the most polluted places on Earth. But it must not stay that way.

That should be the loud and clear message from the Northwest Wednesday when the U.S. Department of Energy holds a public hearing in Portland on its latest Hanford Nuclear Reservation cleanup plan. (The meeting begins with an open house at 6 oɼlock at the Lloyd Doubletree Hotel, 1000 NE Multnomah. The hearing begins at 7)

The region must insist that it won't settle for a sort-of-clean Hanford and will fight any federal effort to designate Hanford as a dump site for radioactive waste from other sites around the nation.

For decades now, the federal government has promised the Northwest a relatively clean and safe Hanford, not a dump site. This region's hopes and dreams for Hanford do not include thousands of truckloads of radioactive waste rolling through Oregon communities on their way to the nuclear reservation.

On the contrary, there is growing support throughout the Northwest and elsewhere for including Hanford's famous B Reactor and some of the more spectacular landscape features on the reservation in a new Manhattan Project National Historic Park.

Tonight's Energy Department hearing is about the cleanup plans, not debate over a Manhattan Project Historical Park. And yes, associating the words "Hanford" and "national park" evokes images of tourists dressed up in protective suits picnicking in the shade of thick concrete bunkers containing radioactive waste.

But few people even in the Northwest know that much of Hanford already is federally protected as a national monument managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Hanford Reach, where the reservation borders the Columbia River, is one of the most productive salmon-spawning areas in the United States. At least 48 rare, threatened or endangered animal species are found at Hanford, as well as some insect species found nowhere else in the world.

Most of Hanford has been untouched by development or agriculture since 1943, when the United States closed the area to begin work on the B Reactor, which would become the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor. It seems obvious that any true Manhattan National Historical Park should include part of Hanford. The B Reactor supplied the plutonium used in the first nuclear explosion at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunner Range in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and for the devastating atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, only 24 days later.

National Park Service officials have suggested that only the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory National Landmark District in New Mexico should be considered for a Manhattan Project Park. Congress should reject that narrow interpretation of the history of the Manhattan Project and include Hanford's B Reactor.

At two recent hearings in Tri Cities, Wash., the community that borders Hanford and knows it best, nearly all of the 130 people who testified were in favor of the historical park. As the many proponents noted, concerns about costs, safety and liability can be addressed -- but only if the Department of Energy delivers on its past cleanup promises and does not turn the place into an ongoing waste dump.

No one is suggesting that the B Reactor be converted into a children's playground, or claiming that Hanford can become a Yosemite on the banks of the Columbia. But Hanford is a unique place that played a significant part in this country's nuclear history. It should be cleaned up and added to America's national historic park system.


For more than 40 years, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation played a critical role in the nation's military weapons program, producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. This process generated massive quantities of waste, much of which was buried on-site or, in the case of liquids, discharged directly to the ground, risking contamination of the groundwater that flows into the Columbia River.

  • Hanford holds more high-level radioactive waste than all other U.S. sites combined.
  • Waste is stored in 177 underground tanks—149 of which are single-shell tanks (SSTs), designed to be used for only 20-25 years. Many of these tanks are some 40 years beyond their design life.
  • These SSTs currently hold about 30 million gallons of waste—enough to fill more than 45 Olympic-sized swimming pools or 2,586 large tanker trucks.
  • Approximately two-thirds of the SSTs are known or suspected to have leaked into the surrounding soils.
  • All of the SSTs have been declared “unfit for use” based on an engineering determination—and under the Washington’s Hazardous Waste Management Act (HWMA), the U.S. Dept. of Energy is required to remove all waste from the SSTs and close the tank system to HWMA standards.

Hanford lacks the capacity to allow for the near-term removal of all waste from the SSTs— as Hanford’s 28 double-shell tanks are nearly at capacity. Even if this wasn’t the case, the HWMA prohibits indefinitely storing hazardous waste.

Because of this— and the high cost of building new double-shell tanks, U.S. Dept. of Energy’s long-held strategy has been to build a Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) to “vitrify” the waste into solid glass. Unfortunately, under this strategy, each delay in constructing and operation the WTP increases the risk of additional leaks from the SSTs.

Hanford cleanup is governed by the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement (TPA), an agreed enforcement order, signed by the Washington State Dept. of Ecology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Dept. of Energy (Energy), that contains detailed schedules for Energy to clean up the site and bring it into compliance with applicable environmental laws—namely the HWMA.

The Washington Attorney General's Office has historically played a significant role in enforcing the requirements of the TPA and ensuring that the cleanup work continues on schedule and in a manner that protects the environment, public health, and the safety of workers performing this important task.

Compliance efforts to date
From 1989 to 2010, the Tri-Party Agreement captured compliance milestones for constructing the WTP, retrieving waste from the single-shell tanks and completing waste treatment.
• When the WTP construction began in 2001, the TPA required the plant to begin operating in 2011.
• All SST retrieval was to be completed by 2018.
• Tank waste treatment was to be completed by 2028.

Washington v. Chu
In 2008, Washington sued the federal government for missing—or being on track to miss— major TPA milestones for WTP construction, SST retrieval and tank waste treatment.

The suit was settled in 2010 and included:
• A judicially enforceable consent decree, defining new milestones for WTP construction and operation as well as 19 SST retrievals and
• Amendments to the TPA that define new end dates for SST retrieval and waste treatment.

In November 2011, Energy gave Washington notice that one or more of the milestones was “at risk.”

The Department gave Washington more detail in May 2012, identifying specific technical issues with the WTP and specifying which milestones were at risk.

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire and former Attorney General Rob McKenna sent a letter in August 2012, reminding Energy that the consent decree required the Department to do everything in its power to implement and meet the scheduled milestones. The letter warned the state was considering invoking the Dispute Resolution provision of the consent decree— a step the state must take before seeking relief from the federal court.

In mid-September, the Energy Secretary responded with a commitment to become personally involved in the situation. In January 2013, the Secretary sent a follow-up letter to Gov. Gregoire summarizing his work. He did not identify an end date for this work nor did he share when Energy might propose a new schedule for WTP construction.

Recent developments
Since October 2012, Energy has reported multiple failures— both in single-shell and double-shell tanks— but mostly in the single-shell tanks.

Washington is exploring its legal options to prevent future and ongoing leaks.

Hanford Reach

What is Hanford Reach?

The Hanford Reach is a free-flowing section of the Columbia River (around 51 miles long), in eastern Washington. Upstream is Priest Rapids Dam and downstream is the McNary Dam.

It is named after a large northward bend in the river’s southbound course. Did you know that the Columbia River actually starts in Canada?

Since 1943 the area has been untouched by development or agriculture and is now considered an involuntary park. Human habitation/use has been stopped. Don’t come expecting a lot of visitor facilities—they don’t exist. You’ll be experiencing the Monument on its own terms.

Ancestral Land
For thousands of years, people have depended on the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River—”Chiawana” (Big River)—and its tributaries to survive in the desert environs of the Columbia Basin. As early as 10,000 years ago, the ancestral inhabitants of today’s Wanapum People, Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Colville, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, and the Nez Perce fished, hunted, and collected a variety of natural resources in the area.

The abundant salmon were complimented by upland roots, seeds, and game. Seasonal gathering of resources such as spring roots or fall Chinook salmon required moving ‘camps’ often. Tule (bulrush) mats were draped over willow poles for temporary shelter. In winter, shallow oval pits were dug and poles covered with tule, willow, or hides for more permanent ‘housepit’ villages along the Reach. Even today, Native Americans gather the tules for making house coverings, sleeping mats, and other household uses.

Native American traditional use areas and aboriginal occupation areas were destroyed before and during the establishment and operation of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Protection of these cultural resources—including tangible portions of sites such as artifacts, features, structures, natural resources, and landscapes (e.g., traditional use and sacred areas), as well as oral and written records—is paramount to the management of the Monument now.

Early Settlements
The Columbia River was a driving force for development. From the time the first explorers passed through the area, the river was the logical transportation corridor and remained the avenue to transport goods and people for nearly a century until the railroads arrived. Water for crops was critical, so irrigation companies formed. The development of several irrigation and land companies, supported in part by outside capital, led to the true settlement and townsites development.

The anticipation of profits provided incentives for Seattle-area developers to invest in the area. The success of the venture brought the first significant regional recognition to this unknown area, based primarily on the area’s mild climate, readily available and level land, perfect growing conditions for early crops, and irrigation. Orchards replaced other crops and livestock as a profitable commodity. The marketing of the new real estate and fruit crops resulted in railroad connections by 1913 with a spur line to Hanford from the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad, which provided the link for shipping products to coastal markets. The rail lines also benefited farmers through quicker receipt of supplies and equipment. Ironically, the rail lines resulting from irrigation changed the Columbia River’s role as a transportation corridor by the 1920s, steam freighters had nearly vanished from the river.

For over two decades, the towns of Hanford and White Bluffs grew and prospered. The White Bluffs area was selected as a soldiers’ home location after WWI many of these ex-soldiers provided labor to established farmers. Advertisement through the realty companies and railroad land agents attracted nearly 500 families, many fleeing the Midwest in the 1920s and 30s looking for new starts. The Depression years reduced prosperity as a result of lower crop values, but many families could at least continue their own existence through subsistence farming and local economic systems. The First National Bank of White Bluffs remained open, and presumably solvent, throughout the lean years, not closing until 1942.

In 1943, the War Department (later the Department of Defense) went in search of a remote, sparsely populated, easily defensible, geologically stable site with plenty of cool water, abundant energy (from hydropower dams on the Columbia River), and a moderate climate in order to build plutonium production reactors in secret. The United States Army Corps of Engineers selected a site near the isolated desert towns of White Bluffs and Hanford. Following site selection, the War Department acquired land through the condemnation of private lands and the purchase of any private lands within the basin formed by Rattlesnake Mountain and the Saddle Mountains. The Atomic Energy Commission, a precursor to the Department of Energy (DOE), then established and ran the Hanford Site (then known as the Hanford Engineering Works).

The Manhattan Project, designed to build the atomic bombs of WWII, required the removal of all residents of White Bluffs and Hanford. Although some of the buildings became offices and residences for a short time, most were eventually removed along with crops, orchards, and landscaping. At its essence, the “progress” of the atomic age helped to turn the landscape back in time, at least on the borderlands that make up the Monument.

Hanford Site
The Hanford Reach National Monument mostly consists of the former security buffer surrounding the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The Hanford Site occupied 586 square miles—roughly equivalent to half of the total area of Rhode Island.

Nine reactors were built on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in response to various world events. The B Reactor was the first—there was no A Reactor at Hanford—and was built as part of weapons development in World War II and in response to concerns over German development of nuclear capability. Built-in just 13 months, B Reactor was the first full-scale reactor in the world, producing weapons-grade plutonium. Plutonium from the B Reactor was used in the world’s first nuclear explosion, July 16, 1945, at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. B Reactor plutonium was used in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. Fat Man, exploding in a 20 kiloton blast, devastated more than two square miles of the city and caused approximately 45,000 immediate deaths and as many as 150,000 total. Japan sued for peace five days later.

In September of 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested its own nuclear weapon, well ahead of when American scientists thought it would have the capability. This led to President Truman ordering the expansion of atomic plants, as well as research into the hydrogen bomb—bombs using plutonium from Hanford. This second round of rapid expansion at Hanford lasted through 1955.

The third round of expansion at Hanford began with the election of Dwight Eisenhower as President. President Eisenhower was concerned about the level of military spending and was able to significantly cut spending, especially on conventional forces and equipment. One reason he felt that spending could be cut was through the development of the “massive retaliation” policy, i.e., through the threat of massive nuclear bombing being delivered by the newly developed long-range ballistic missiles.

These reactors are no longer in production and are now being dismantled, the lands and waters remediated.

Presidential Proclamation
Do you know how Presidential Proclamations are passed? The story might start earlier than you think.

In 1988 Senators Dan Evans and Brock Adams introduced Public Law 100-605 to authorize a study of the Hanford Reach for potential consideration as a Federal Wild and Scenic River. The next year, the National Park Service created a task force to study and then draft an environmental impact statement for why the Hanford Reach should be considered for inclusion. Five years after that, the NPS concluded that the Hanford Reach should be included as a recreational river in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

From 1995 to 1997, three polls were conducted, one by the Benton County PUD, one by the Grant County PUD, and another by the Audubon Society. All showed with overwhelming support that Mid-Columbia Basin residents wanted federal action so the last undammed section of the upper Columbia River, the Hanford Reach, would be permanently protected as America’s next Recreational Wild & Scenic River.

Senator Patty Murray first introduced legislation regarding the Hanford Reach in 1995 but it wasn’t until 1997 that the Hanford Reach Wild and Scenic bill was introduced to the 105th Congress. At this time there was a direct conflict between Murray’s bill and Representative Richard Hastings’s HR 181, which would give control of the Hanford Reach to local county governments. So much debate and conflict arose that it required a special hearing before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Approximately 2,000 people showed up for the Congressional Field Hearing in Mattawa, WA (one of the largest events ever held in Mattawa).

Urging federal protection of the Hanford Reach, Senator Murray said that if Congress did not act within a year, she would support administrative action such as an executive order to protect the Hanford Reach.

By 1998, House Joint Memorial 4025, a petition to support Hasting’s bill was introduced into the Washington State Legislature. Washington’s governor at the time, Gary Locke, still supported Murray’s Wild and Scenic Bill with continued federal ownership of the Wahluke Slope. The major flaws seen in Hasting’s bill were the biases toward local control, the appropriate jurisdictions not sufficiently represented, the financial responsibilities not evenly distributed, and actual management of the river was not included.

Letters and phone calls made by local conservation groups and members of the general public were absolutely instrumental in Hasting’s bill dying in the first House committee session. However, only months later, the bill was resurrected in state legislature under a law that allows environmental bills exemption from the committee deadlines. This time the legislature only had one week to pass both the House and Senate and the clock ran out.

On April 6, 1998, American Rivers, a national river conservation organization, named the Columbia River’s Hanford Reach as America’s Most Endangered River. Still, this designation did not protect the Hanford Reach by law.

Later that year, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, toured the Hanford Reach. On a separate visit, Katie McGinty, Chair of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality also toured the Hanford Reach. After her visit, McGinty said that President Clinton was absolutely determined that the land surrounding the Hanford Reach would remain in federal control and public ownership. She also mentioned that it was irresponsible to give away several million dollars of public land to private interests at the expense of the environment.

By 1999 the City of Richland and the City of Kennewick Councils had endorsed the Wild & Scenic designation for the Hanford Reach and Senator Murray and Representative Norm Dicks were expected to introduce legislation to designate the Hanford Reach as a National Recreational Wild and Scenic River again. This designation would permanently protect the 51-mile section of the nation’s third-largest river that flows through the northern portion of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford Reservation.

On April 10th, 1999, the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society congratulated Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, for taking a historic step in protecting the Hanford Reach ecosystem by proposing that all Department of Energy lands on the Wahluke Slope be managed as a National Wildlife Refuge under the stewardship of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Once again, it was local conservation groups and members of the public that made a difference when the U.S. Dept. of Energy took public comments on its Revised Draft Hanford Remedial Action Environmental Impact Statement and Comprehensive Land Use Plan (HRA EIS) a plan to determine land use classifications for the entire Hanford area for at least the next 50 years. The two options proposed were to designate the vast majority of the Wahluke Slope for preservation as a National Wildlife Refuge or to open up about 2/3 (almost 60,000 acres) of the Slope to agriculture.

In the end, President Clinton sided with the conservation groups and expanded the national wildlife refuge system on the Wahluke Slope of the Hanford Reach. Conservation Chair of the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society, Rick Leaumont’s response was, “We congratulate President Clinton, Energy Secretary Richardson, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for taking a historic step in protecting the Hanford Reach ecosystem by transferring management of the entire Wahluke Slope to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be managed as a permanent national wildlife refuge. That’s an additional 57,000 acres transferred to the refuge to help protect critical salmon spawning habitat and the Reach itself.”

As you may know by now, President Clinton issued an executive order designating the Hanford Reach a National Monument on June 9, 2000. This designation protected over 196,000 acres of land and the last free-flowing section of the Columbia River.

If you don’t remember the saga spanning nearly twenty years, you might recall in more recent history, President Donald Trump signing an executive order in 2017 directing the Department of Interior to review 27 national monuments, including the Hanford Reach. During a public comment period, the Department of Interior received nearly 1.2 million comments, including nearly 70,000 comments mentioning the Hanford Reach National Monument, many in the form of letters. Suffice to say, the Hanford Reach remains a National Monument.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Hanford Resources

Here are some recommendations for books, movies, websites, and other assorted resources. They were chosen by our archivist, who would welcome any suggestions to add to the list! It is certainly not an exhaustive list, and instead is a starting point for Hanford's fascinating history.

  • Adams, Melvin R. Atomic Geography: A Personal History of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2016.
  • Brown, Kate. Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. New York: Oxford University Press. 2013. 406 pp.
  • Findlay, John M. and Bruce Hevly.Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011. 384 pp. ISBN 978-0-295-99097-2.
    --See also the very useful bibliographic essay at the end of this work, p.352-360.
  • Gerber, Michele Stenehjem. On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site. 3rd Ed. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
  • Hevly, Bruce and John M. Findlay (eds.). The Atomic West. Seattle: The University of Washington Press.
  • Power, Max S. America's Nuclear Wastelands: Politics, Accountability, and Power. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2012.
  • Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1986. 928 pp.
  • Hein, Teri. Atomic Farmgirl: Growing Up Right in the Wrong Place. New York: Mariner Books, 2003. 273 pp.
  • Flennicken, Kathleen. Plume: Poems. Seattle : University of Washington Press, 2012. 70 pp.
  • Sanger, SL and Craig Wollner. Working on the Bomb: An Oral History of WWII Hanford. Portland, OR : Portland State University, Continuing Education Press, 1995. 264 pp.
  • Williams, Hill. Made in Hanford: The Bomb that Changed the World. Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 2011. 206 pp.

Articles and Book Chapters

  • Bauman, Robert. &ldquoJim Crow in the Tri-Cities, 1943-1950.&rdquo The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 96, no. 3 (2005): 124&ndash31.
  • Bauman, Robert. &ldquoTeaching Hanford History in the Classroom and in the Field.&rdquo The Public Historian 29, no. 4 (2007): 45&ndash55.
  • Carlisle, Rodney P. &ldquoProbabilistic Risk Assessment in Nuclear Reactors: Engineering Success, Public Relations Failure.&rdquo Technology and Culture 38, no. 4 (1997): 920&ndash41. doi:10.2307/3106954.
  • Groves, Leslie R. Manhattan District History (
  • Groves, Leslie R. Now It Can be Told. New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1962.
  • Seaborg, Glennt T. The Plutonium Story, The Journals of Professor Glenn T. Seaborg 1939-1946. (Edited and Annotated by Ronald L. Kathren, Jerry B. Gough, and Gary T. Benefiel). Columbus and Richland: Battelle Press, 1994.

Environmental History of Hanford

Wills, John. &ldquo&lsquoWelcome to the Atomic Park&rsquo: American Nuclear Landscapes and the &lsquoUnnaturally Natural.&rsquo&rdquo Environment and History 7, no. 4 (2001): 449&ndash72.

    - A great resource including oral histories from the community and audio tours for visiting the Hanford site. - Includes links to resources for teachers, students, and researchers on nuclear history

"Arid Lands is a documentary feature about the land and people of the Columbia River Basin in southeastern Washington state. Sixty years ago, the Hanford nuclear site produced plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and today the area is the focus of the largest environmental cleanup in history. It is a landscape of incredible contradictions. Coyotes roam among decommissioned nuclear reactors, salmon spawn in the middle of golf courses, wine grapes grow in the sagebrush, and federal cleanup dollars spur rapid urban expansion.

Arid Lands takes us into a world of sports fishermen, tattoo artists, housing developers, ecologists, and radiation scientists living and working in the area. It tells the story of how people changed the landscape over time, and how the landscape affected their lives."

Produced by the US Department of Energy

"This is the Emmy Award-winning first chapter of The Hanford Story, a multimedia presentation that provides an overview of the Hanford Site&mdashits history, today's cleanup activities, and a glimpse into the possibilities of future uses of the 586-square-mile government site in southeast Washington State. "

Produced by the City of Richland

"A historical look at the developement of the Hanford Engineering Works Project. The top secret WWII project that changed the face of Richland and the world forever."

Hosted by the Washington State University Libraries

" This was a silent video about the development of the Hanford Site in Washington state, which appears to have been produced by the U.S. government at or near the end of World War II. This is part one of three all three comprise about a 90 minute presentation."

The Hanford History Partnership is a collaborative effort of Washington State University Tri-Cities

Athletic 35-year-old men who have never touched cigarettes are not supposed to come down with a debilitating lung disease usually linked to smoking.

But Seth Ellingsworth of West Richland, Washington, says he got sick in an instant last year, when he briefly inhaled a strange odor at his job at the nearby Hanford Nuclear Site.

"I started having breathing problems," said Ellingsworth, "and it hasn't gone away since."

The father of four, who has reactive airway disease and is now unable to work, wore a nebulizer mask and gasped for air as he showed NBC News all the medicines he's forced to take. "This is a corticosteroid. This is a pill I take, it's Zafirlukast. This is prednisone. This is a bronchodilator."

Seventy years ago, the Hanford Site produced plutonium for America's nuclear arsenal. Today, it's run by the Department of Energy through its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions. The contractor is managing a $110 billion cleanup of 56 million gallons of chemical and nuclear waste, stored in 177 underground tanks — a task that's expected to last the next 50 years.

But the tanks are leaking, and the vapors they emit contain toxic and radioactive chemicals known to cause cancer as well as brain and lung damage. Just this year, 61 workers have been exposed, and some nuclear experts have called Hanford "the most toxic place in America" and "an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen."

The DOE has acknowledged in nearly 20 studies conducted over the past 24 years that there is a safety risk to workers at Hanford. Just two years ago, a report found toxins in the air "far exceeding occupational limits" and a "causal link" between vapor exposure and lung and brain damage. The DOE has also said that the site "cannot effectively control" dangers and gives workers "no warning."

But critics say the DOE still isn't doing enough to act on its own findings, and continues to put workers at risk.

Local neuropsychologist Brian Campbell says he has evaluated 29 people at Hanford with both respiratory and cognitive symptoms, including "some of the worst cases of dementia that I've seen in young people, which we do not anticipate."

Dr. Campbell said the DOE doesn't want to acknowledge the injuries. "More likely than not," said Campbell, "I think it's caused by the exposure they had at Hanford."

When NBC News put out a call for current and former Hanford workers who believe they were exposed to toxic materials, more than 20 volunteered to talk to us. Eleven of them sat down with NBC News for a group interview.

Diana Gegg was one of several former workers who said they have dementia: "I have shaking on the right side of my body."

Lonny Poteat said he had been diagnosed with "pretty bad" nerve damage. "Sometimes the pain gets so great," said Poteat, "I just pass out."

Mario Diaz said he was losing his memory and struggling to breathe, and became emotional when he said he's no longer able to do things with his family.

"The worst part is showing up for work out there and getting pasted because they didn't tell us," said Diaz. "They weren't forthright in sharing what they know."

The workers told us that "over and over," the Department of Energy and the contractor on site told them the readings for harmful materials were safe.

"We're told daily that it's safe," said a man who currently works at Hanford. "[That] there's nothing to worry about."

"They're a bunch of liars," said a female employee.

Former workers also said that in the past they were almost never allowed to opt for protective gear, like the supplied air tanks recommended by many experts.

"They wouldn't let you have it," alleged a former worker.

Several told us they were discouraged from seeking safety equipment, and threatened with losing work if they insisted.

The DOE says it has no tolerance for retaliation.

The Hanford Challenge, a local watchdog group, says that at least three deaths have a documented link to exposure at Hanford, including Gary Sall's.

Sall died in 2011 after descending into dementia, which was diagnosed as "work-related."

Some Washington state officials are now intervening, including Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who has pledged to investigate and called the federal government's response "an absolute scandal."

"When you think about the risk not only to workers but also to our water supply," Habib told NBC News, "it's like a Stephen King novel. This is something that I think everyone in the country should be thinking about."

Attorney General Bob Ferguson is taking an even more unusual step — suing the federal government.

Said Ferguson, "They've known for decades. It's been going on year after year, report after report.

Ferguson said he considered the federal government's lack of action "unforgivable."

"And to be candid, they have to live with themselves on that," said Ferguson. "I ask the question all the time, 'How many more workers have to get sick at Hanford before they do something about it? How many?' Please ask them. I really want to know."

NBC News asked a DOE official that very question during a visit to Hanford. The DOE granted us rare access to the highly restricted site, and an interview with Deputy Assistant Secretary Mark Whitney.

Whitney, who has since left the DOE for the private sector, said that all Hanford workers who have been referred to medical evaluation to date have been returned to work.

NBC noted that many workers who have not returned to work are seriously, even terminally ill, and asked Whitney if the DOE maintains that these illnesses are not related to on-the-job exposures.

"I wish we had a more complete understanding of those circumstances," said Whitney. "A lot of effort the last couple years has gone into strengthening our efforts to deal with the potential vapor exposure issue."

NBC then showed Whitney a copy of Diana Gegg's medical assessment, in which doctors say her serious, possibly terminal illnesses are a direct result of her exposure at Hanford, and asked him for comment.

Said Whitney, "I'm not a medical professional and can't provide a qualified medical opinion."

Whitney says the DOE is "strengthening communication" with Hanford workers, and in 2016 invested $50 million in improving air monitoring.

At Hanford, however, a subcontractor who was monitoring the air next to a set of waste tanks refused to tell NBC News what kind of readings he was getting.

"Sorry, but I'm not allowed to discuss that," said the subcontractor.

Whitney said the DOE has taken more than 170,000 measurements of the breathing zones in Hanford's tank farms, and never found measurements higher than the permitted occupational exposure limits.

NBC, however, has documents showing DOE readings from Hanford in 2009 that are far in excess of occupational limits. Mercury was measured at 473 percent above limits, and ammonia was measured at 1800 percent above limits — and workers were not told.

"I'm not aware of what workers were told or were not or those readings," said Whitney. "Potentially those measurements were taken at the top of a 20 or 40-foot stack where workers would not be."

But a DOE study from 2014 found a significant risk of dangerous exposure at that distance from the source of vapor. "Clearly, almost 30 percent of this concentration … might by highly irritating even under very brief exposures occurring over 30 feet from the source."

Susannah Frame, investigative reporter at Seattle NBC affiliate KING, says the risk goes beyond workers at the site, and includes the risk that a tank could explode and contaminate a large area. That risk was originally raised by a government nuclear board.

Said Frame, "If you care about people that are doing the work of this country that is needed so that we don't have a nuclear disaster, you should care about Hanford. "

"Our lives don't matter," said Seth Ellingsworth. "Our health does not matter. We are simply a business decision. It costs more money to protect us than to fight us, to deal with us being sick."

Washington River Protection Solutions, the contractor that runs Hanford for the DOE, has now reached an agreement with workers' unions to provide air tanks to all workers. Experts told NBC News that the masks can help — but that they can also be withdrawn by the government at any time. They also say it doesn't solve the broader safety problems underscored by 24 years of DOE studies about the risks of working at Hanford.

Ronan Farrow is the host of "Ronan Farrow Daily" on MSNBC.

Prior to joining MSNBC, he was a foreign policy official in the first Obama administration. He founded the State Department's Office of Global Youth Issues and reported to the secretary of state as the United States'first special adviser for global youth during the Arab Spring revolutions. He also served for two years as a U.S. diplomat focused on the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A lawyer and a Rhodes Scholar, Farrow has written about human rights and foreign policy outlets including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.

Rich McHugh is a supervising producer in the NBC News Investigative Unit.


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