Hanford’s History

Early Hanford

Hanford during World War II.

Hanford was built in haste and secrecy to create nuclear weapons.  Though bomb production is gone, the mindset lingers.  There has been a serious lack of research to determine the extent of the threat posed by Hanford’s radioactive and toxic legacy.

For over 65 years, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation has been releasing radioactive contaminates into the water, air and soil.  Let’s take a look back.

1943: In January, the U.S. government creates the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.  Plutonium production will begin at the Hanford site in SE Washington.

Nine months later, B Reactor begins operation and releases radioactive contamination into the Columbia River.  By December, large amounts of radioactive materials are also released into the air and soil.

1946: Congress passes The Atomic Energy Act.  Hanford is now a civilian operation, controlled by the Atomic Energy Commission without any independent oversight.  (The Atomic Energy Act is still in effect.)

N Reactor

Hanford's N Reactor in operation in the 1970s.

1947-56: The construction of five new plutonium production reactors, two chemical reprocessing plants and, 81 underground waste storage tanks are constructed at Hanford within a ten-year period.

1949: In December of 1949, the largest single discharge of radioactive iodine-131 from Hanford, known as the “Green Run,” is an intentional release.

Late 1950s to Mid-1960s: All eight reactors operate at their highest power levels, contaminating the Columbia River with radioactivity that travels out to the Pacific Ocean and along the coast.

1964: President Johnson orders the gradual shutdown of Hanford operations.  Three reactors are closed.

1971: The AEC closes the last of the eight original reactors, leaving only the N-reactor.

1973: A 115,000 gallon nuclear tank leak is detected by officials.

Townsite school

A modern picture of the old schoolhouse from the Hanford town site - a community that was relocated during World War II to clear the way for industrial scale plutonium production.

1970s & 1980s: Through news stories and government admissions, as history of radioactive releases and accidents at Hanford is beginning to be made public.

1988: The N-reactor, the last plutonium production reactor at Hanford, is ordered to shut down.  The PUREX reprocessing facility is also quietly closed.

1989: The Tri-Party Agreement governing Hanford cleanup is signed.

History adapted from material archived by the Hanford Health Information Network.  More information available here.

ARTICLE: Hot Milk:  The Discovery of the Milk-Iodine Pathway, by Jim Thomas (2011).  In this article, Jim Thomas discusses the effects of radioactive iodine from Hanford’s releases on children — downwind of Hanford – in the years of Hanford’s operations.  Critical to the debate is when Hanford scientists and managers knew of the health impacts of humans consuming contaminated milk.  Jim Thomas convincingly demonstrates that Hanford managers were well aware of the pathway even before Hanford began operations, and not, according to the “official version”, in the mid-1950’s.  Thanks to Jim for contributing this article to Hanford Challenge readers.

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