Hanford’s Reach



Plutonium production is a very dirty business. Hanford was the place where the US government first learned how to produce plutonium, making enormous environmental mistakes along the way.  The reactors, reprocessing plants, and reactor fuel fabrication areas all created huge amounts of radioactive and toxic byproducts.  Today, Hanford stores nearly two-thirds of the US inventory of high-level waste by volume, 374 million curies of radioactivity, and several hundred thousand tons of radioactive waste.

Short-sighted methods of disposal are the root cause of contamination in Hanford’s soil, groundwater, and of the Columbia River.  These methods include:

  • Barrels of radioactive waste and other contaminated materials buried in unlined (and sometimes unmarked) pits and landfills.
  • Radioactive liquid waste – 440 billion gallons of it – dumped directly into the ground through “reverse wells,” trenches, french drains, waste ponds, and basins.

This waste contaminates the soil and becomes especially dangerous when it is mobilized by groundwater that moves through the soil and interacts with the Columbia River.  The soil and rock beneath Hanford contains 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater.

What kind of pollution are we talking about?

While the radioactive components are perhaps the most alarming, hazardous chemical wastes present serious dangers to environmental and human health. Below is a partial list of contaminants found in the groundwater beneath Hanford by congressional investigators:


  • Plutonium
  • Uranium
  • Tritium
  • Strontium 90
  • Cesium 137
  • Technetium 99
  • Iodine 129
Chemical and Metal contaminants:

  • Carbon tetrachloride
  • Chloroform
  • Dichloromethane
  • Hexone
  • Methylcyclohexane
  • Perchloroethylene
  • Phthalates
  • 1,1,1- Trichloroethane
  • Barium
  • Cadmium
  • Chromium
  • Nickel
  • Mercury

These chemicals move through the groundwater and reenter the human environment through seeps and springs along the banks of the Columbia where they can accumulate in plant and animal life.

A particularly troubling example of non-radioactive contamination is the levels of PCBs in Columbia River fish. In a 2002 study, the EPA concluded that PCB levels in Columbia River fish are at their highest at the Hanford Reach section, where the river flows through the site.  The study concludes that Tribal children eating fish from the Hanford Reach have risks of immune diseases and central nervous system disorders that are more than 100 times greater than for non-Indian children. The risks of contracting cancer among tribal people from eating fish from the Hanford Reach were estimated as high as 2 in 100.  Regulatory actions are often taken when the cancer risk exceeds 1 in one million.

Muddled Models

Columbia salmon

The Hanford Reach is the last free flowing stretch of the heavily dammed Columbia River and a crucial spawning ground for Columbia salmon.

Compounding all these problems is the fact that the US Department of Energy uses outdated, inaccurate information and environmental models in their cleanup decision-making process.  For years, Hanford scientists believed that the soil under the site acted as a huge sponge that kept contamination out of the groundwater and wider environment – this attitude permitted the unprecedented dumping of radioactive and toxic waste.  It was not until the 1980s that a new generation of Hanford scientists challenged these myths, risking their professions and often their safety, to inform the public of the real hazards of Hanford contamination.  Hanford’s has made important progress, but still has a long way to go to truly acknowledge the extent of groundwater, soil, and river pollution.

Environmental Sampling

For years, Hanford Challenge and director Tom Carpenter have conducted independent environmental sampling to supplement information from the Department of Energy and other government sources that may be tempted to present a safer picture than is entirely true.

Hanford Challengers sampling

Hanford Challengers sampling for radioactive thorium with State of Washington officials.

In collaboration with respected environmental scientists like Marco Kaltofen, we have analyzed plant and animal tissues near the Columbia River.  In May 2008, we conducted a large-scale sampling of residential dust from over 100 Hanford-area homes.  Results and analysis from that effort will be published by Kaltofen in late-2009 in a scientific journal.

In 2008, Hanford Challenge discovered elevated levels of radioactive thorium on a beach near Hanford’s 300 Area, near a burial ground for thorium-contaminated waste.  Marco Kaltofen’s analysis of our samples revealed thorium concentrations 13 times higher than the level at which the State of Washington requires removal.  At our urging, representatives of the Washington State Department of Ecology and Department of Health joined Hanford Challenge to collect more samples and further investigate this matter.

Carpenter and Kaltofen have also conducted environmental sampling around the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and at nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union.

Environmental sampling is not just a necessary “check” on government assurances, it’s a great way to get out into the community and meet people who are directly affected by Hanford.  If you are curious about our sampling work, have a tip on a possible hot spot, or wish to volunteer on our next project, send us an e-mail to info@hanfordchallenge.org.

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