Hanford Nuclear History

During World War II (1939–1945), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carried out a massive research and development program code-named the Manhattan Project. Its goal was to use new discoveries in physics to produce the first atomic bombs. These bombs would not rely on chemical reactions, as dynamite or gunpowder do, but on the stronger energy of nuclear bonds, a principle that had come to be known as “splitting the atom.” Millions of atoms splitting in a nuclear chain reaction could release so much energy that the bombs would be much, much more powerful than any existing explosive.

The Manhattan Project employed tens of thousands of workers at three major sites. The Hanford Site (then called the Hanford Engineer Works) in Washington State produced plutonium, a dense, radioactive metal that in the right circumstances can sustain a nuclear chain reaction. Plutonium from Hanford was used for the world’s first nuclear test detonation in Nevada, for the bomb that the United States dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and for America’s Cold War nuclear arsenal.

Plutonium production at the Hanford Site eventually totaled 74.3 tons. But for every usable ton of plutonium (about 13 gallons by volume), more than 800,000 gallons of dangerously radioactive byproducts (“high-level waste”) were produced. This waste was stored in 177 leak-prone underground tanks. Additionally, 43 miles of unlined landfill trenches were filled with contaminated equipment and supplies (“low-level waste”). By the mid 1980s, it became clear that something would have to be done to contain these environmental problems before they threatened people and wildlife downstream on the nearby Columbia River.

The Hanford Site’s mission changed from plutonium production to cleanup in 1989. The U.S. Department of Energy (which owns the site), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (a federal regulator), and the Washington State Department of Ecology (a state regulator) signed the Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order, commonly known as the Tri-Party Agreement. The Tri-Party Agreement sets legally enforceable deadlines for moving low-level waste to a new, safe landfill and cleaning up what began as over 80 square miles of groundwater contaminated by Hanford waste.

The Visual Timeline collects images of the Hanford Site and briefly describes some of the most important events that have affected it from pre-1889 when American Indians lived there through 1989 when the Tri-Party Agreement was signed.

Perspectives on Hanford History examines different viewpoints about the history of the Hanford Site, and how these perceptions continue to influence public opinion.

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River in January 1960. The N Reactor is in the foreground, with the twin KE and KW Reactors in the immediate background. The historic B Reactor, the world's first plutonium production reactor, is visible in the distance. - United States Department of Energy - Image N1D0069267.
N Reactor, a unique hybrid reactor that both generated electricity and produced plutonium, began operation in 1963 and ran until 1987.