How Hanford Works

Nobody alive on the planet knows exactly how Hanford works, or even if it does, but there are some general facts that can be stated:

Hanford is owned by a federal agency called the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).  The DOE used to be called the Atomic Energy Commission, but changed its name in 1973.

Hanford map

The work of cleaning up Hanford is divided among various contractors, who periodically bid for different projects and are selected by the Department of Energy to perform the work.

Although Hanford is owned by the DOE, it hires the operation of the site to various and assorted contractors.  See below for an organizational table.

Hanford employs about 9,500 people, and that number is expected to rise to as high as 14,000 because of federal stimulus money.

The primary factors influencing the whole Hanford system are: money, oversight, management, and the DOE’s perception of the challenge.

Hanford Challenge is working to convene all the major stakeholders — governments, corporate contractors, the Tribes, businesses, and communities — to take a serious look at the situation and begin the hard work of developing a strategic plan that addresses all the issues.

Money, money, money

Hanford runs on taxpayer money, around $2 billion per year.  Federal stimulus money increased that figure to $4 billion in 2009.  The GAO estimates that the final bill for Hanford’s cleanup may be as much as $120 billion and may take another 50 to 60 years to complete.

Every year, the DOE submits a proposed budget for Hanford.  On too many occasions, the amounts requested often fall far short of the amounts needed to accomplish the legally-binding deadlines for cleanup.


Oversight — regulating the actions of DOE to ensure that they are in compliance with federal law — at Hanford is primarily conducted by three agencies:  Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington State Department of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency.  Other federal agencies occasionally weigh in at Hanford.  The DOE is both a regulated entity and regulator — it is responsible for the oversight of its contractors at Hanford.


The promise of a new contractor refreshing a project can often be hindered by the same managers remaining from the previous contract and continuing problematic work practices.

Hanford also has a citizen’s advisory board, called the Hanford Advisory Board.  This 32-member board meets many times per year and delivers advice on the cleanup to the DOE, the State of Washington, and EPA.  Hanford Challenge is a member of the HAB, and supports its activities.

In 1987, the DOE entered into an agreement with the State of Washington and the EPA that bound the federal government to a set of cleanup milestones, or deadlines, to accomplish the cleanup.  Recently, Washington State and the DOE resolved a lawsuit brought by the state after it became clear that legally-binding deadlines for cleanup would not be met.


So how does Hanford make decisions?  All Hanford work is driven by contracts.  The DOE puts out a scope of work, accepts bids from contractors, and selects the winning bidder.  The work is laid out in specific terms by the contract, and modified throughout the course of the contract as needed to adjust to the budget at hand, new directions in cleanup, and changes in Administration.

The public has a narrow window in which to offer guidance and direction.  The primary method that the federal and state parties receive guidance from the public is through the Hanford Advisory Board (HAB).  We are actively involved  in the HAB’s Public Involvement Committee’s efforts to improve and increase opportunities for the public to engage.  See HAB advice #239.

Hanford is complicated. The issues are highly technical, and the government does not always operate transparently, although it is getting better.  Hanford Challenge is working to address the polarization that often gets in the way of dialogue and shared understanding.  By finding time to discuss challenging issues, Hanford’s diverse group of stakeholders has the opportunity to uncover agreement and shared passion for a robust and thorough remediation.  As the broader Hanford community finds ways to challenge assumptions and reach new understanding, everyone benefits.

Facing Reality

Despite the big money and big employment figures at Hanford, many feel that the cleanup is off-track.  Very little of the radionuclide and chemical inventory has been stabilized after thirty years of effort, and long-term plans call for an institutional presence to assure no use of contaminated soils and groundwater for thousands of years – an unrealistic prospect.

Tom Carpenter

Hanford cleanup is a big, complex issue. Congressional oversight and allocation of money have a huge impact on DOE and contractor accountability. Our meetings with Members of Congress help give legislators a nuanced picture of Hanford cleanup.

This is unacceptable. Hanford contains vast inventories of contaminated soil and water resources.  It contains two-thirds of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste, most of the low-level waste, and some 1,400 Superfund sites on the 586 square mile reservation.  Apart from the radiation, there is severe chemical contamination as well, including large pools of carbon tetrachloride, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury, and thousands of other chemicals.  Contamination flows into the Columbia River at higher-than-permissible levels in several locations unabated, year after year, and hot spots are identified, usually by independent activists, on an alarmingly frequent level.

The DOE’s answer to all of this is to announce that it intends to bring in even more waste for permanent disposal at Hanford as soon as possible.  This waste would come from other DOE facilities, as well as commercial sources.

Hanford’s future hangs in the balance. It is up to the community to write its future.

Hanford Organizational Chart

Prime Contractors

Prime Contractors

Principal Subcontractors to Fluor Hanford, Inc.

Other Subcontractors to Fluor Hanford, Inc.

Principal Subcontractor to Washington Closure Hanford

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