By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries
PULLMAN, Wash. – A brief history of the Hanford nuclear site – from pre-Manhattan Project to the present – is the subject of an exhibit in the atrium case at Washington State University’s Terrell Library through June 30.
With the opening of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in mid-November, a new chapter has started for Hanford, where – along with Los Alamos, N.M., and Oak Ridge, Tenn. – the nuclear age began, said Marilyn Von Seggern, WSU Libraries’ government information librarian. The exhibit features publications from the libraries’ collections, including congressional hearings, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports and books.
“We created the exhibit so people can be reminded of the amazing history of what went on so close by,” she said. “We’re also highlighting Hanford’s renewed history as a way to encourage a visit to the site today.”
Secrecy in the desert
According to the National Park Service website (https://www.nps.gov/mapr/hanford.htm), Hanford Engineer Works (HEW) was built starting in 1943 to manufacture plutonium along the Columbia River in Washington state. More than 51,000 workers constructed and operated the massive complex to fabricate, test and irradiate uranium fuel and chemically separate plutonium.
A lesser known part of Hanford’s past is how the government claimed the site. One of the Manhattan Project’s first acts was to condemn private property and evict homeowners and Native American tribes to clear the way for the top-secret work of making the materials for the world’s first atomic bombs.
Some 1,500 residents of the towns of White Bluffs and Hanford – where farmers raised fruit, grapes, berries, mint and asparagus – received evacuation notices in early March 1943 and were given 30 days to vacate their homes, wrote Ted Van Arsdol in 1958’s “Hanford…The Big Secret,” a collection of Columbia Basin News articles.
“No one could get any definite answers as to why the land was being taken,” he wrote. “Many thought the prices were not fair and that they should have gotten notice much earlier so they wouldn’t have been so far ahead on the year’s work and also could have looked for other places…”
Dawn of the nuclear age
The secrecy ended on Aug. 6, 1945, with the front-page headline of Richland’s newspaper, The Villager: “It’s Atomic Bombs, President Truman Releases Secret of Hanford Product, Information Is Made Public This Morning.” The newspaper also reported on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.
Three days later, the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, containing plutonium from Hanford. Within days of the two U.S. nuclear attacks, Japan surrendered.
The DOE’s website “The Manhattan Project: An Interactive History” (https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945/retrospect.htm) credits the bomb for helping to bring an end to World War II and creating a new niche for scientific research.
“Despite numerous obstacles, the United States was able to combine the forces of science, government, academia, the military and industry into an organization that took nuclear physics from the laboratory and on to the battlefield with a weapon of awesome destructive capability, making clear the importance of basic scientific research to national defense,” according to the website. “The Manhattan Project became the organizational model behind the remarkable achievements of American ‘big science’ during the second half of the 20th century.”
Nuclear proliferation, environmental fallout
One war ended but another began: the Cold War with the Soviet Union. A video overview for “The Hanford Story” (http://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/HanfordStory) describes how Hanford continued to support America’s “peace through strength” policies throughout the Cold War, “producing enough plutonium to maintain a continual and formidable deterrent to any potentially hostile nation, namely the Soviet Union.”
Managing and disposing of plutonium production waste were not priorities during the Cold War decades immediately after World War II. Consequently, impacts to the environment over 50 years were devastating: 270 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater; 25 million cubic feet of buried or stored solid waste; 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel; 20 tons of plutonium-bearing materials; and 53 million gallons of waste in 177 underground storage tanks.
From weapons to cleanup
Beginning in 1989, Hanford’s mission changed from plutonium production to cleanup with the signing of the Tri-Party Agreement between the DOE, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington state.
Site cleanup has achieved some remarkable accomplishments, said Von Seggern. Twelve billion gallons of groundwater have been treated and more than 12,000 out of 15,000 cubic meters of plutonium-contaminated waste were retrieved and shipped offsite. But the project will not be completed until 2060 and is budgeted at approximately $2 billion per year.
New efforts include construction of the Hanford Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (http://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/WTP), the world’s largest radioactive waste treatment plant. In 2019, the facility will begin vitrifying – or turning into glass – liquid tank waste, a safer and easier option for storage and eventual disposal than previous methods.
“Just like their predecessors 60 years ago, some of industry and government’s best and brightest are focused on bringing the latest in environmental research, technologies and innovations to accelerate the cleanup effort,” as noted in “The Hanford Story” overview. “These 21st-century scientists, engineers, laborers and technologists are busy making a new kind of history.”