The Hanford X-Files

PigHanford has seen a LOT of activity since 1943. Strange stories circulate among the old timers and the people out there today. Is Hanford serious business? Absolutely. But like any institution, fascinating, funny, scary, and macabre tales are bound to spring up over the years. We are collecting and sharing those stories here.



In this section, you will find the following stories:

Hanford’s Secret Green Run

by Jim Thomas

On the night of December 2, 1949, a secret experiment was conducted at Hanford that resulted in the single largest release of radiation into the air of the Northwest. Important details remain classified, nearly 60 years later. The release was designed to test airborne monitoring equipment the United States was developing to collect information on the Russian nuclear program. The top secret test was called the Green Run because it involved processing uranium fuel that had been cooled only 16 days as compared to the then standard of 90 days (since the 1960s, the standard practice was to cool the fuel for 180 days between discharging the fuel from a reactor and the start of processing it). The longer cooling time allows for radiation, especially iodine-131, to decay to lower levels.

Scientists estimate that the Green Run released between 8,000 and 11,000 curies of iodine-131. By way of comparison, the 1979 Three Mile Island reactor accident released an estimated 25 curies while the 1986 Chernobyl accident belched tens of millions of curies of radioactive iodine-131. During its 45-year history of plutonium processing, Hanford released about 1 million curies of iodine-131.

The danger of releasing iodine-131 into the atmosphere is that the radiation is carried by the wind until it falls out onto pasture grass. Cows and other grazing animals ingest the contaminated grass and much of the iodine-131 is concentrated in the milk. When people, especially young children, drink the radioactive milk, they ingest the contamination and it concentrates in the thyroid gland. The radiation exposure increases the risk of thyroid cancer and other disease later in life.

The Green Run remained a top government secret until 1986, when it was mentioned in historical Hanford documents that were released to the public in response to requests by the Hanford Education Action League (HEAL) and other citizen groups. Through repeated requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) over several years, HEAL and several news organizations were successful in forcing the government to declassify most, though not all, of a special report on the secret experiment.

Even though it is nearly 60 years since the Green Run, the U.S. government refuses to make public the name of the person who authorized the experiment, his position and agency within the government, and the reason for the secret test. After years of effort, other researchers and I have established that the government organization was part of the U.S. Air Force. A few documents concerning planning for the Green Run suggest that personnel from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) may also have been involved. Only people with top-level security clearances and the “need to know” have access to this important information. It seems reasonable to conclude that the release of this information would not harm our national security and thus constitute a misuse of the classification system.

About the author: Jim Thomas has spent more than 25 years investigating Hanford’s operational history and advocating for openness and accountability about nuclear weapons manufacturing. He is writing a book on Hanford.

Secrecy was a major preoccupation at Hanford, going far beyond “national security” requirements.  A1992 issue of Perspective, the newsletter of the Hanford Education Action League, describes the depths of the “Atomic Deception” at Hanford from the days of the Manhattan Project into the late-1980s.

Killer Fruit Flies in the Lunchroom

In 2001, the LA Times ran this piece describing the work of Ray Johnson, a biological control manager for radiation protection at Fluor Hanford.

Uncontrolled contamination spread by fruit flies made Hanford a national laughingstock, spoofed by humor columnist Dave Barry and in the syndicated comic strip “Sylvia.”

The flies had been attracted to a soil fixative with saccharin in the base that was being sprayed on a contaminated site. They flew to a lunch room and spread the taint to nearby trash bins, which wound up at the Richland municipal landfill.

Johnson can chuckle about it now, recalling attempts to find the source of the contamination. As crews ran radiation detectors around the lunch room and passed over a fruit fly, “the contamination flew away,” he recalls.

The journeys of a few thousand fruit flies cost $2.5 million to clean up.

A 1998 story from Richland’s Tri-City Herald carries more specific information.

Atomic Alligators on the Loose!

This is a story so bizarre it has to be true.

Between 1961 and 1964 an animal laboratory near the F Reactor was used to test the effects of radiation on animals.

Today, no one can say why DOE decided in the 1960s to start testing alligators at Hanford.

Speculation centers on the fact that Hanford already had lots of experience in testing animals, dating back to the late 1940s when soldiers and technicians secretly snuck up to local sheep and cows with radiation counters to check for effects from airborne radioactive emissions.

Hanford’s first four alligators came from Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp in August 1961. More dribbled in from a Louisiana alligator farm until Hanford had 33 by March 1962. And more came later until at least 55 were on the site. Most were 2 to 3 years old and 2 to 3 feet long.

The alligators stayed in a small manmade pond heated by sun lamps outside the lab near F Reactor. There, technicians took care of them, feeding them trout.

“We had a lot of fun playing with them,” one technician said. “When we fed them fish, their mouths would open and then snap the fish in two. They were amazing animals to move so slow and have such fast jaws.”

The fun had to come to an end at some point.  A mass-escape definitely took place – maybe two.
A chain-link fence surrounded the gator pond. The critters burrowed either beneath it or through gaps where the fence sections met.

“You could see the tracks in the sand go out to the river,” said one researcher.

Some gators were caught quickly. Some took months to find.

A few months after it escaped, an angler caught a 33-inch alligator on the Franklin County shore about nine miles downstream of F Reactor near Ringold. He put it on display at a local sports shop, but General Electric officials confiscated it when the fisherman was not around. (G.E. managed Hanford from 1946-1965, bringing some really interesting things to life.)

One control group alligator and one irradiated alligator were never found.

Pink Tumbleweeds

The Hanford Site is situated in the midst of a vast expanse of rolling shrub-steppe desert. A predominant plant species inhabiting the area is the Russian thistle – commonly known as the tumbleweed. These plants survive this dry climate by sending down deep taproots into the soil until they reach groundwater.

At Hanford, that groundwater is often contaminated: thus, the tumbleweed itself sucks up radioactive elements along with the water. The radioactivity lodges in the tissue of the plant.

Richland High School "Bombers"

The city of Richland, WA borders the Hanford Site. The Richland High School "Bombers" have a mushroom cloud for a mascot.

This presents a problem. There is a very special time in a tumbleweed’s life when the plant’s mass of above-ground vegetable matter breaks off into a ball and is blown by the winds to new locations, where it can propagate new tumbleweed plants.

These handy evolutionary mechanism for survival (the deep taproot) and propagation (the whole tumbling thing) are also devilishly effective means of transferring radioactivity from groundwater all over surface – in a hot ball of weed that can travel dozens of miles or more before reaching a final resting point. The hot tumbleweed can contain enough radioactivity to pose a health risk on a chance encounter.

On the theory that wind-blown tumbleweed radiation is not a good safety practice, and at the urging of a local radio-activist named Norm Buske, Hanford began a program to collect and dispose of those tumbleweeds that were deemed too hot to share their radioactive contents to the world. A team of workers was sent out on the Hanford site in a truck to measure the tumbleweeds. Those that were hot were painted pink. Those with no radiation were left alone.

A second truck was dispatched to collect those tumbleweeds that were painted pink. The hot weeds were put into a barrel and disposed of at the local radioactive landfill.

Because it’s easier to paint a hot tumbleweed than it is to safely dispose of one, the pink painter team got way ahead of the collection team, so Hanford was soon dotted with a landscape of pink tumbleweeds.

Then the winds hit.

The Hanford area is subject to periodic, powerful winds* that reach up to 70 mph.  The strong winds carried many dozens of pink tumbleweeds into the town of Richland and beyond, raising questions among the inhabitants. Rumors circulated, but no official acknowledgement came. Hanford quietly discontinued the practice of marking hot tumbleweeds with pink paint or any other color.

*These dust-ups are called “termination winds”because in the early days of Hanford these fierce dust-storms (which introduced large volumes of sand and grit into every aspect of their lives) compelled many workers to quit their jobs and leave the area rather than face a second occurrence.

A Radioactive Whale Is Killed Off Oregon

(This story appeared in the New York Times on December 11, 1964)

LONDON, Dec. 10 – A “hot” whale has been killed off the coast of Oregon, where it seems to have been irradiated by waste products washed down the Columbia River from the Hanford atomic plant.

According to a report in the current issue of the British science weekly Nature, the 55-foot fin whale was slaughtered off Depoe Bay, Ore., in September of last year.

Samples of most of its organs and part of the stomach contents were reduced to ash and sent to the department of oceanography of Oregon State University at Corvallis.

Researchers found that the whale flesh was still emitting gamma rays from radioactive forms of various elements, especially one called Zinc-65 to distinguish it from ordinary inert zinc.

The researchers emphasized that the levels were low and that “no health hazards exist.”

Since the waters also appear to contain irradiated plankton, the minute organisms on which many whales feed, the Corvallis researchers suggested that the “hot” zinc in this food might be used as a method of tracing the oceanic wanderings of whales.

Oysters Set off Hanford Radiation Alarm

(From this 1990 story in the New York Times)  “In the early 1960’s, a Hanford worker set off alarms when he walked through a radiation monitor at the plant. An investigation revealed that the day before he had eaten a can of oyster stew contaminated with radioactive zinc. The oysters had been harvested in Willapa Bay, along the Pacific Coast in Washington State, 25 miles north of Astoria.”

Radioactive zinc-65 (which you may recall from the whale story above) is a fission by-product routinely released into the Columbia River during reactor operations to produce plutonium.

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