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What is Hanford?

Hanford sits on nearly 600 square miles of land located along the Columbia River northwest of the Tri-Cities in south-central Washington. Its main entrance, located on the outskirts of Richland, is 200 miles from Seattle.
A map of the Hanford Site in south-central Washington state.

Hanford is not a nuclear power plant. It’s a place.

Hanford sits on nearly 600 square miles of land located along the Columbia River northwest of the Tri-Cities in south-central Washington. Its main entrance, located on the outskirts of Richland, is 200 miles from Seattle.

Hanford was created during World War II to be the home of one Manhattan Project factory. Starting in 1944, plutonium production started there and continued until the late 1980s. The plutonium used in the 2nd atomic bomb – nick-named “Fat Man” and dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 – was produced at Hanford.

Plutonium production was located at Hanford for three reasons.

1) It was a rural, thinly populated area. The government bought all the land, moved out the locals and created a huge secure site.

2) It had access to lots of cold water from the Columbia River – key to cooling nuclear reactors and uranium fuel rods.

3) It had access to lots of electricity from the nearby Grand Coulee Dam.

By the time plutonium production ended in the 1980s, Hanford had become the most contaminated place in the entire Western Hemisphere. Radiation, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, asbestos … you name it, and it’s at Hanford.

Making plutonium is very messy. It involves taking uranium fuel rods out of nuclear reactors to get access to the very small amount of plutonium that is produced as a byproduct of a reactor’s chain reaction. The fuel rods are dissolved with highly caustic chemicals, and the plutonium is then separated out.

That process left behind millions of gallons of radioactive waste. That waste was stored in 177 tanks at Hanford. Some tanks were small, but most are very big – capable of holding tens of thousands to a million gallons of waste. At first, waste was stored in single shell tanks. Later, 28 double-shell tanks were built. These are very big – some are 1 million gallon capacity. There’s 56 million gallons of this waste total, and the radiation in much of that waste will take tens of thousands of years to naturally decay.

The problem with the waste left behind from plutonium production is that it is both very radioactive and chemically toxic. The waste is volatile, and over the decades different chemicals and materials were added to the waste in each tank to keep it stable. The result is that the waste is not uniform – every tank has its own chemistry, and there are not complete records for what was dumped into each one. Whole scientific careers have been built around just studying and classifying what’s in the tanks. And classifying a tank’s contents today doesn’t mean you’ll know how that waste will evolve over time – the high radiation means the tanks are self-heating, and radioactive decay produces new elements that create further changes in the contents’ chemistry.

The cleanup going on at Hanford is really two different cleanups.

The first is the easy part (and by easy, it’s only in comparison to the second part), and it involves demolishing old buildings, scrapping and burying old equipment, removing heavy metals from ground water, and restoring the landscape to its natural condition. Good progress is made on this part of the cleanup every year. Lots of press releases come out about this work.

But the second part is so hard that it’s an open question whether it can be completed at all – at least with current technologies. The second part of the cleanup is all about stabilizing and permanently storing the 56 million gallons of liquid nuclear waste stored in the 177 tanks.

A map of the tank farms at Hanford, where millions of gallons of radioactive waste is stored.

The current plan to do that involves the construction of a massive factory that will convert the tank waste – all that radio- and chemically-active material – into glass logs. The plant, still under construction and costing taxpayers about $15 billion so far, is called the Hanford Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant. But everyone calls it “the Vit Plant,” short for vitrification.

Vitrify: convert (something) into glass or a glasslike substance, typically by exposure to heat.

The plant is years behind schedule and way over budget. Whistleblowers have raised all sorts of concerns about its construction, and some experts believe the vitrification process the plant will use is too risky – that it could result in plutonium going critical (i.e. exploding).

In the meantime, part of the cleanup job at Hanford is simply managing those 177 tanks until the Vit Plant can be finished. Not one of the tanks was built to last as long as they’ve already been in use. Some tanks date back to the 1940s; the most recently built ones date to the 1960s and early 1970s (these are the double-shell tanks).

The double shells – 28 in all – were built to last 40 years. With proper management, scientists say they can be used much longer. But the fact that one of those massive tanks, known as AY-102, has begun to leak from its inner shell is a big concern. The waste could eventually escape the tank’s outer shell and contaminate the surrounding environment. Some experts already believe waste has breached the outer shell and leaked into the soil.

In April 2016 the first signs emerged that a second double-shell tank is beginning to fail. High levels of radiation were recorded on filters connected to the outer safety space of the tank, called AY-101. The readings were similar to those recorded on AY-102 approximately 15 years ago, yet those indicators were discounted at the time.

One more point about the cleanup: There are a lot of fingers in the pot! The U.S. Department of Energy is the landlord and is in charge of making the cleanup happen. There are two different DOE agencies at Hanford. They are:

* Office of River Protection (ORP): Mainly concerned with the waste in the 177 tanks.

* The DOE Richland Office (DOE-RL), which coordinates much of the work done by private contractors and the DOE’s various offices.

ORP and DOE-RL hire private contractors to do most of the work at Hanford. Big companies like Bechtel, General Electric, DuPont and Lockheed Martin have all done work at the site at some point in the past 60 years. The tank farms are Hanford are currently managed by a contractor called Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS).

The cleanup itself is governed by the Tri-Party Agreement (TPA), whose parties are the DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Washington (specifically, the Department of Ecology). We often hear of court orders and lawsuits involving the Hanford cleanup, and these legal actions are usually efforts by Washington and/or EPA to enforce plans and timelines spelled out the TPA.

More info. Online:


Here’s what KING has reported on Hanford:

2013 Series

This series, Hanford’s Dirty Secrets, focused on how Dept. of Energy officials, along with officials from a private contractor, hid from the public and Washington state the fact that nuclear waste had started to leak from a 1 million gallon tank.

The tank in question is AY-102. “AY” refers to a specific tank farm at Hanford, and 102 is the number assigned to it. Every tank has a letter-number combination, some like the two AY tanks have two shells – an inner shell that holds the waste, and an outer backup shell. The two shells are separated by a narrow hollow space (about 2-3 feet wide) called the annulus. (Again, there are 28 total double-shell tanks).

In October 2012 DOE announced that waste had leaked from AY-102’s inner tank into its annulus. That was big news in and of itself, and everyone covered it. The KING 5 Investigators got involved in the spring of 2013 when a source got in touch with Susannah Frame. This source – Mike Geffre – was a longtime Hanford worker. He was upset about the official report on the AY-102 leak because it said the leak had not been detected until shortly before it was announced in Oct. 2012.

KING 5 ultimately found that Hanford officials knew or should have known the tank was actually leaking liquid into the annulus in 2011. Geffre was the first worker to discover it, yet managers dismissed his evidence.

In effect, a serious leak was kept quiet for a year. During that time, the contractor that manages all the tank farms for DOE – Washington River Protection Solutions – was able to collect payments from the government for work it said would make AY-102 ready to play a role in transferring waste to the Vit Plant.

That work, however, was pointless given the leak. A leaking tank could not be used to store waste before sending it to the Vit Plant.

The 2013 series’ key findings:

  • A top DOE official at Hanford lied to a citizen oversight board about the status of AY-102.
  • The contractor – WRPS – collected money from federal government for work that was not usable.
  • The contractor violated a TPA rule – a rule that’s also written into Washington state law -- that mandates that any leaking tank must be emptied within 24 hours.

2014 Series

Sources came to the KING 5 Investigators in March 2014 reporting that workers were being injured by toxic fumes venting out of the tanks. Our investigation found that this problem dates back decades at Hanford.

The tanks have their own internal chemistry – they are hot and active. They are also affected by atmospheric pressure. When the barometer drops or the temperature changes rapidly, the tanks need to vent pressure. When this happens, no radiation escapes, thanks to filters on the vent stacks. But the filters don’t screen out the toxic chemicals.

The venting happens unpredictably. Workers who are not wearing respirators or breathing provided air (think scuba on land) can become violently ill and permanently disabled.

Our reporting in 2014 introduced viewers to victims from past vapor exposures, showed that the Dept. of Energy and private contractors downplayed the vapor threat for years (mainly to cut costs), and that workers were discouraged from wearing protective gear because it made them work at a slower pace.

As a result of our reporting, the Washington attorney general sued the government to force DOE and contractors to take stronger steps to protect workers. For a while Hanford officials increased safety regimens in the tank farms, but those extra layers of safety have been rolled back in some cases.

2016 Stories

Starting in March, we started hearing about three problems at Hanford:

1) AY-102 leak got much worse: DOE and WRPS finally started to pump out the tank in February. That work disturbed the tank walls, and much more waste spilled into the tank’s annulus. DOE says the expanded leak was expected and that no waste is leaking out of the tank’s outer wall.

2) Readings obtained from AY-101 – the sister tank to AY-102 – suggested that waste was leaking from inside the tank into its annulus. Basically, the readings are very similar to readings obtained from AY-102 in the years before a leak was confirmed. While an AY-101 leak hasn’t been proven by observation, the scientific readings suggest one is happening or is imminent.

3) A series of vapor events started in April and continued into July. More than 50 workers reported vapor exposure and were evaluated for any health impacts. The spate of vapor incidents suggests safety protocols that came after KING’s 2014 series aren’t being followed … or larger problems are at play.

Key takeaways on KING’s reporting on Hanford over the years:

  • The 2013 stories were about a leaking tank, AY-102. It was leaking for a year before government revealed it.
  • The 2014 stories were about worker safety. Waste tanks vent toxic fumes, which workers breathe and get sick.
  • Our 2016 stories are three-fold: AY-102 leak worsening; AY-101 may be leaking; 50 workers reported vapor exposures starting in April.

More Hanford facts:

* The annual budget for the Hanford cleanup totals more than $2 billion.

* There are budget documents published by the government showing the cleanup lasting into the 2080s and costing taxpayers $100 billion or more.

* Hanford is not a nuclear power plant. But there IS a working nuclear power plant located on the site. That plant is operated by Energy Northwest, and it provides power to the electric grid throughout the region. Back in the 1980s a plan was considered to put several more reactors there for power production, but it never happened (costs and protests; the whole mess is referred to as “whoops,” an acronym for Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS).

* The U.S. Navy buries decommissioned nuclear reactors from submarines and aircraft carriers at the Hanford Site. These reactors are metal structures, not liquid waste or sludge.

* Parts of the Hanford Site are being converted into national park facilities – part of a multi-location Manhattan Project Historical Site.

* Some parts of the original Hanford Site have already been transferred to non-DOE owners. The Interior Dept. is the main beneficiary.

* No one knows how much radioactive material was dumped into the ground or vented into the air during the early decades of plutonium production. We do know waste was dumped and vented in ways that would not be allowed today.

* Approximately 1 million gallons of nuclear waste has already leaked out of the single-shell tanks and is slowly making its way toward the Columbia River. Because of the deterioration of the single shells, much of the tank farm work currently focuses on transferring waste from those tanks into the sturdier double-shells.

* As double-shell tanks begin to break down, a grave concern is the lack of space for the waste. No new tanks have been constructed since the 1970s, despite years of expert recommendations that new tanks need to be built to hold the waste until the Vit Plant is operational.

* There is a group of people called “downwinders” who believe they received radiation doses from Hanford, particularly in the first decades of plutonium production.

* Radiation from Hanford has been found in the Pacific Ocean near the mouth of the Columbia River.

Remember these key points:

  • Hanford is not a nuclear power plant.
  • Hanford is a massive site (586 square miles) owned by the federal government located 200 miles from Seattle. (The Dept. of Energy is principal landlord).
  • Plutonium was made at Hanford for 40 years, starting in WWII with the Manhattan Project.
  • Plutonium production is messy; 56 million gallons of unstable waste was left behind in aging tanks.
  • The effort to stabilize that waste is complex, over budget, and behind schedule.
  • The cleanup is overseen by DOE, EPA and Washington’s Dept. of Ecology.

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