by Robert Alvarez
In mid-September 1973, as I was getting ready for the long drive from Eugene, OR to Washington D.C. to join Kitty, I learned about the danger of the Hanford nuclear site from a colleague at the White Bird Free Clinic. Right before leaving my farewell party, he pulled me aside and ominously said that highly radioactive wastes were leaking from giant tanks at Hanford in Eastern Washington threatening the Columbia River. After growing up amidst soot-blackened buildings and streams destroyed by steel mills, my friend’s farewell warning struck a chord. It took several years before I realized it was a harbinger shaping my career as an environmental activist.
In January 1943, just weeks after the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction took place at the University of Chicago, the Hanford site in the steppe shrub desert of Southeastern Washington was selected to make plutonium for the first atomic weapons. Its relative isolation and close proximity to the large water and electrical supplies from the Columbia River made the 560- square-mile site an ideal location. Over the next 44 years, Hanford’s nine reactors had produced 67.4 metric tons of this fissile material.
By the late 1980s’ it started to become clear that the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River passed through one of the most profoundly contaminated zones on the planet. About 440 billion gallons of contaminated liquids were directly disposed into the ground at Hanford–enough to create a poisonous lake the size of Manhattan and more than eighty feet deep. About a ton of plutonium was dumped directly into the soil. More than a third of Hanford’s 177 high-level radioactive waste tanks – many larger than the Washington State capitol dome – have leaked approximately one million gallons, contaminating groundwater that eventually enters the Columbia River. Until plutonium production stopped in Hanford by 1971, the Columbia River served as a disposal medium for reactor discharges that transported radioactive and other hazardous wastes along the coasts of Oregon and Washington.
In 1973, the public was unaware of magnitude of the environmental mess created over the decades at Hanford. The site remained shrouded in secrecy because of its role in producing plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It all began to change because of a convergence of events starting in the late 1970’s, when troubling evidence emerged indicating that Hanford workers were dying from radiation-induced cancers. The researchers, Dr. Thomas Mancuso, Dr. Alice Stewart, and George Kneale, were attacked by the Energy Department, which sponsored the study, while DOE tried to seize their data and shut them down. By the fall of 1977, I was working on nuclear safety and health issues for the Environmental Policy Center. At the urging of my wife, Kitty Tucker, I decided to take up their cause and arranged for Dr. Mancuso and his colleagues to meet with members of Congress and their staff. Efforts to suppress the study backfired under the glare of public scrutiny and Mancuso and his colleagues were able continue their work.
This was followed by a decision by the Reagan Administration to resume plutonium production at Hanford, after more than a decade of dormancy. At issue was the restart of the 30-year-old PUREX plant, in 1983 that would chemically recover plutonium from spent reactor fuel ( also known as reprocessing). Concerns over expanding America’s burgeoning nuclear arsenal to rekindle the Cold War merged with the heightened awareness of Hanford’s radiological hazards; and by 1984 stiff citizen opposition emerged in Spokane, WA with the formation of the Hanford Education Action League (HEAL). Fueled by the sharp investigative reporting of Larry Shook and Tim Conner and notably by Karen Dorn Steele at the Spokane Spokesman Review, the once silent and supportive citizenry of eastern Washington became a force to be reckoned with.
Then on April 29, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe occurred. It didn’t take very long, after Chernobyl to force closure of the last operating reactor at Hanford and several others at the Savannah River Plant, in South Carolina. At a national press conference about a week after the scale of accident became known, I pointed out that, like Chernobyl, U.S. weapons production reactors all lacked containment barriers to prevent the escape of radioactivity following a major accident. After independent safety reviews, and botched restart efforts, they remained closed permanently. The production of plutonium for nuclear weapons by the United States ceased for the first time since 1943.
That same year, DOE was compelled to release 20,000 pages of declassified records providing a disturbing glimpse of Hanford’s history. Responding to a Freedom of Information Act request, that I helped fashion in partnership with HEAL, the DOE revealed there were many large unreported releases of radioactivity at Hanford, particularly iodine-131, which rapidly contaminates air, vegetation, and milk supplies. Because it is absorbed mostly in the body’s thyroid gland, radioactive iodine has been linked to thyroid cancer and other types of thyroid damage. Between 1944 and 1947, more than 684,000 curies were released (the accident at Three Mile Island released about fifteen curies. Of particular concern was a deliberate release of I-131, in 1949, known as the “Green Run” that spread contamination throughout the region. The rationale for this dangerous experiment still remains secret.
Adding to all this was a decision by the Reagan administration in 1985 to place Hanford on a list of three potential sites for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s commercial nuclear power fleet – something that inflamed the entire region. Normally supplicant politicians realized that Hanford could become the end of a giant funnel for some of the world’s largest concentrations of artificial radioactivity. They began to loudly demand more transparency about the radioactive mess already created at Hanford. I found myself meeting with the Washington’s Republican governor and giving speeches to the region’s labor unions and the business community. My message was simple: states that wielded the environmental compliance sword got more answers and secured far more funds for cleanup. In 1985, I produced an analysis of DOE’s nuclear weapons budget to prove that point. Despite creating the biggest environmental mess, Hanford received the least amount of funds for environmental, safety and health protection than the rest of the nuclear weapons complex.
By 1988, I was hired by Senator Glenn as his senior investigator responsible for oversight and legislation regarding the DOE nuclear weapons program. After 13 years as an environmental activist, I was able to bring my knowledge and skills to bear with Congressional oversight authority. By this time, the DOE’s nuclear weapons complex was undergoing an incipient collapse from neglect of its environmental, safety and health responsibilities. Our top priorities were to establish independent safety oversight, a permanent large- scale radioactive waste management and environmental restoration program, medical monitoring, and compensation for sick nuclear weapons workers. By 1993, the first three had come into being. It took until 2000, after I joined the Energy Department for the last goal to be met.
In 2019, the Energy Department estimated that in order to complete cleanup at Hanford, it would require $11 billion per year for 60 years. Cleanup doesn’t mean restoration of the site to its original pristine condition. Large areas about a dozen miles from the from the shore of the Columbia will remain as profoundly contaminated “national sacrifice zones” of the nuclear age.