The Columbia River at Richland, Wash. All Photo Credits: April Wendling



By April Wendling


As sunlight dawned over Richland, Wash., townsfolk bustled about, eager to start the day. In the faint chill of the early morning October air, I wove through the streets on my bike, navigating past the Atomic Ale Brewpub & Eatery and a mall with an outsized atomic logo. Richland’s close identification with the nuclear age was, I knew, no accident.

With Google Maps as my guide, I set out that first day from Richland on a 43-mile expedition to the famous Hanford Reach National Monument. The mighty Columbia River intersects the monument, giving the area a variety of habitat types and richer biodiversity than is typical for Washington’s temperate desert landscape. The contrast with “atomic”-themed Richland was stark, but that was precisely the attraction. I had come here to understand better how this great, fertile river played its part in the creation of history’s most destructive weapon, and how it suffers still from that toxic association.

The B Reactor, which opened in 1944 and was used to convert uranium into plutonium during the Atomic Age.

My reward that first day was meager. After a four-hour ride, I found myself standing before a locked gate and a sprawling metal fence. Nearby, a bull snake retreated at my approach. Here the reputedly public Hanford Reach National Monument was actually not open to the public — only researchers had clearance to enter.

Atomic age secrecy, it seemed, dies hard at Hanford.

The following day, sore as I was from my previous eight-hour biking escapade, I rode out to a small building on the highway called the B Reactor Museum. The B Reactor was the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor and, today, I’d be taking a tour.

All the tour-goers filed into a van, and we drove back along that endless expanse of road I’d biked the day prior. Our tour guides gave us a crash course in the B Reactor’s history as we drove.


The Manhattan Project West

“Back when World War II was raging on with no end in sight, the Manhattan Project was set in motion to produce the world’s first nuclear weapons,” one guide explained. “Tension was high, as suspicions had arisen that Nazi Germany was also trying to create an atomic bomb.”

On Dec. 2, 1942, the first man-made, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was initiated in Chicago, during an experiment led by Enrico Fermi. Using uranium, it produced a new, more potent element: plutonium.

With this success, the hunt was on for a remote location to house full-scale plutonium production. The site would require a large supply of water, ample electricity, and an expansive, lightly populated area.

The small agricultural community of Hanford, Wash., fit the bill perfectly. The adjacent Columbia River provided plenty of water that could be pumped through the reactor core to keep it cool. Upstream was the Grand Coulee Dam, which could provide power for the site. In early 1943, only some 2,300 people — mostly farmers — lived in the Hanford area. Residents received the stunning notices in the mail: They had three months, at most, to vacate their homes. Because of the secrecy surrounding the Manhattan Project, explanations for their eviction were vague at best. When the farmers who lived in Hanford were ordered to vacate their homes on such short notice, they were given compensation for their land. But it was often insufficient. Appraisals frequently left out valuable assets such as fences, irrigation systems, and even entire buildings. These were forgotten homefront victims of the U.S. nuclear program.

The B Reactor control room.

Construction workers were brought in immediately to the newly christened “Hanford Engineer Works.” Power loops and substations, piping systems, sewage facilities, and construction camps for workers were hastily assembled. Crews began work on the first full-scale plutonium production reactor, called the “B Reactor,” followed by reactors D and F. To maintain secrecy, few workers even knew the reactor’s purpose.

After the B Reactor’s completion in September 1944, loading of uranium fuel into the reactor began. Plutonium derived from the B Reactor was used in the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico during the summer of 1945. The subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 killed about 200,000 people, mostly civilians. Five days later, Japan surrendered and WWII was over.

The Hanford Site continued operation through the Cold War. At the peak of Hanford’s production, the site featured nine nuclear reactors and five large plutonium processing complexes. As the demand for nuclear warheads dwindled, most of the reactors were decommissioned during the late 1960s and early 1970s.


The Aftermath

What does retirement look like for a wartime nuclear reactor?

The core of the B Reactor.

These days, the majority of Hanford’s reactors are sealed to allow radiation levels to safely decay before the reactor is dismantled. The B Reactor, however, remains intact, and has been cleaned up to accommodate tours such as the one I was on. Just to be safe, I had brought a dosimeter — a device that measures radiation levels.

Approaching the Columbia River, we took a turn into the gated-off Hanford Site. A blocky gray building with a towering exhaust stack gradually came into view: the historic B Reactor.

As we exited the van and walked into the reactor building, I checked my dosimeter — I was absorbing no more radiation than I would back in my apartment in Illinois.

Towering before me was the reactor face. “Back when it was in operation, this is where workers would insert new fuel rods into the reactor,” our guide said. “It measures 36 feet tall by 28 feet wide and was cooled by 75,000 gallons of water per minute.”

What’s left of the high school in Hanford, Wash., which was abruptly closed in 1943 when Hanford residents were told to evacuate. 

At the end of the tour, we were given time to scout the rest of the building on our own. Many of the rooms featured old signage from when the reactor was operational. Radiation zone warnings, work procedures, instructions for the handling of hazardous materials … you name it. One genre of sign in particular caught my eye: “Silence means security — For the safety of all, don’t talk.” Definitely a wartime atmosphere.

The next day, I toured what little remained of the town of Hanford. Most of the buildings had been demolished to make room for the Manhattan Project West, but the town’s bank still stands.

Not far away I came to the remnants of the local high school; only the walls are standing. It was hard to imagine that the entire town was displaced over the span of a few short weeks in the early 1940s.


A Contaminated Ecosystem

So, I had seen human traces of the Hanford project decades ago. But what about the “long reach” — less visible legacies of the atom bomb for the Hanford Reach ecosystem and its residents?

Warning signs near Rattlesnake Mountain in the Hanford Reach.

The Reach is teeming with life. Stands of green and grey rabbitbrush and bluegrass blanket the landscape, along with other bunchgrasses, shrubs, and wildflowers. Closer to the river, bitterbush and sagebrush dominate the sandy shores with their sturdy roots. Below ground, badgers and coyotes dig their dens while, high in the sky, migrating birds make a stop at the Reach to snag fish from the river. Particularly abundant are salmon, which migrate up and down the Columbia each spring.

As winter melted into spring, the pre-settlement indigenous tribes of the Columbia River basin used to gather where the river itself converged. Although they lived apart for much of the year, these tribes shared a language and culture. The salmon harvest was a time of meeting and celebration. It was also a time for hard work as they caught, cleaned, and dried enough fish to last throughout the year.

Unfortunately, this landscape would be lost to the tribes in the years to come. When Euro-American farmers settled the area, they displaced the indigenous people and treated their own crops with hazardous chemicals. These chemicals poisoned the landscape so disastrously that they still pose a threat to human health today.

Inevitably, things only got worse after the nuclear reactors were constructed in Hanford. Those who were downwind of the Hanford Site were exposed to radionuclides, particularly iodine-131, with the heaviest releases from 1945 to 1951. During the Hanford Site’s early days, workers took little precaution with the disposal of nuclear waste — and sometimes just dumped it into the soil. These radionuclides entered the food chain via dairy cows grazing on contaminated fields, eventually making their way into milk and other animal products. Studies have shown a connection between these exposures and preterm births along the Columbia.

Another source of contaminated food came in the form of fish from the Columbia River. From 1944 to 1971, pump systems drew in water from the river to cool the reactors. After its use, the water was held in retention basins for several hours before being released back into the river. Unfortunately, several hours is not nearly enough time for longer-lived radioactive isotopes to decay, so several terabecquerels entered the river every day. When the reactors were active, radiation became highly concentrated in the river’s fish and permeated the food chain. This disproportionately affected the indigenous people of the area, as the Columbia’s fish are a significant part of their diet and culture.

“There is evidence of a vast amount of cancers and related illnesses now in the Yakama people,” Yakama Nation elder Russell Jim said in an interview with Cynthia Kelly for the Voices of the Manhattan Project by the Atomic Heritage Foundation. “The Columbia River is the lifeline of the Pacific Northwest. It has been such since the beginning of time. And now, for instance, you have a study by the Environmental Protection Agency that says, ‘The indigenous people have one chance in 50 of getting cancer from the chemicals if we continue to eat the fish from the Columbia, especially around the Hanford area,’ as we have in the past. … There is a concerted effort now by the Yakama Nation to influence the cleanup of the site. We know that it will never be returned to pristine status in the next 500 years, but at least there should be an effort to set the stage for cleanup.”


Cleanup Efforts

Russell Jim is right. Decades have passed, and we’re only just starting to tackle cleaning up all the nuclear waste — originally stored in underground tanks at Hanford. More than a third of the 177 tanks have leaked. Lurking below, an area of contaminated groundwater the size of Seattle has raised serious concerns in recent years. There are cleanup efforts in place — the basic idea is to process the waste into harmless glass logs — but they’re far behind schedule. Construction of the processing plants was supposed to be completed by 2007, but that date has kept slipping further into the future, to 2011, then to 2019, and recently all the way to 2036.

That’s not to say no progress has been made. Waste from the oldest tanks has been transferred to newer tanks that feature a dual-shell design, which offers extra insurance against leaks. And in 2015, workers treated 2 billion gallons of groundwater. But the vast majority of the contaminated groundwater still sits below the site.

In an ironic twist, some of the most chemically unsafe areas of the Hanford Site legally cannot be cleaned up by the Hanford cleanup teams. In fact, these chemically unsafe areas aren’t even associated with plutonium production — they’re the result of the potent chemicals farmers once sprayed on their crops, before the Manhattan Project even took shape. For their own safety, Hanford nuclear cleanup crews are forbidden to clean up agricultural waste.

Another problem is that we don’t really have a good idea of how contamination has affected the Hanford Reach. Many modern studies of the Reach’s salmon populations are inconclusive, and there’s little documentation of contamination in terrestrial species. While it’s true that other contaminated habitats tend to cope reasonably well with the threat of radiation exposure, that’s no reason not to study how Hanford’s ecological community is holding up.

The signs inside the B Reactor still elicit some healthy respect from visitors.

So what can we take away from Hanford? Like many other places around the globe, there’s a deep and complicated environmental history here, but you’ll only see it if you take the plunge into the past, both ancient and modern. The Yakama People and other tribes used to live in harmony with the land here, without fear that the food they ate might bring them harm. Farmers then made their living off Hanford’s soil, but in doing so, they damaged the land with dangerous chemicals. And then the government seized the land, both from the flora and fauna, and from the people who called Hanford their home, to advance the deadliest war munitions program in history. Radioactive waste dumps and leaks were frequent in those years and the decades that followed. Although cleanup measures are now being taken, they aren’t nearly enough.

Even today, with World War II and the Cold War receding in our collective memory, there’s a distinct lack of transparency when it comes to owning Hanford’s contamination problems and funding solutions for its residents, both human and non-human.

The old signs I saw in B Reactor put it bluntly: “Silence means security.”

About the Author …

April Wendling is from Darien, Ill. She graduated in May 2019 with a B.S. in Earth, Society & Environmental Sustainability and Geography. She is a Communications Intern for iSEE and serves as the Student Editor for QII.ii.

Her research trip to the Northwest was sponsored by a generous donation from Janelle Joseph.