The Toxic Legacy of the Cold War: Costly and Dangerous Cleanups at Atomic Bomb Production Sites



75 years ago, in March 1943, a mysterious construction project began in a remote location in eastern Washington State. Over the next two years, some 50,000 workers built an industrial site covering half the size of Rhode Island, at a cost of more than $ 230 million, or the equivalent of $ 3.1 billion today. ‘hui. Few of these workers, and hardly anyone in the surrounding community, knew the purpose of the installation.

The site was called Hanford, after a small town whose inhabitants were relocated to make way for the project. Its mission became clear at the end of World War II. Hanford had produced plutonium for the first nuclear test in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, and for the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki on August 9.

As a researcher in environmental and energy communication, I studied the legacy of nuclear weapons production. From 2000 to 2005, I served on a citizens’ advisory council that provided information to state and federal officials on a massive environmental clean-up program in Hanford, now one of the most contaminated sites in the world.

As America’s leaders consider producing new nuclear weapons, I think they should carefully study Hanford’s lessons. Hanford provides one of the most dramatic examples of problems that have unfolded – and persist today – at nuclear sites where production and secrecy have taken precedence over safety and environmental protection.

Image courtesy of

A national nuclear network

Hanford was one of the three major facilities behind the Manhattan Project – the emergency program to build an atomic bomb. It was part of a larger complex connecting facilities across the country. A plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, enriched uranium and operated a prototype nuclear reactor. The Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico assembled a group of world-class scientists to design and manufacture the weapons, using materials produced at other sites. Small facilities across the country have made other contributions.

As World War II entered the Cold War and the US-Soviet arms race intensified, new locations were added in Ohio, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Colorado and elsewhere. Secrecy obscured much of the work at these sites until the 1980s, with serious consequences for public health, worker safety and the environment. Nuclear and chemical wastes caused serious contamination at Hanford and other sites, and their treatment was difficult and expensive.

Major sites of the Cold War nuclear weapons production complex. Image courtesy of USDOD

Contamination in Hanford

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the United States had mass-produced some 70,000 nuclear bombs and warheads. Hanford made most of the plutonium used in these weapons. Workers irradiated uranium fuel in reactors, then dissolved it in acid to extract the plutonium produced. This method, called reprocessing, generated 56 million gallons of liquid waste containing radioactive and chemical poisons.

Hanford’s nine reactors were located along the Columbia River to provide a source of cooling water and released radiation into the river throughout their lifetimes.

The fuel was sometimes reprocessed before its more radioactive isotopes had time to decay. Managers knowingly released toxic gases into the air, contaminating farmland and leeward pastures. Some communiques supported an effort to monitor Soviet nuclear progress. By following Hanford’s intentional broadcasts, scientists learned to better spot Soviet nuclear tests.

Liquid waste from reprocessing was stored in underground tanks designed to last 25 years, assuming that a permanent disposal solution would be developed later. The US Department of Energy, which now operates the weapons complex and its cleanup program, is still working on this solution.

Workers prepare to remove the core from a waste tank in Hanford in 2010. Photo courtesy of the Hanford website

During this time, at least a million gallons of tank waste seeped into the ground. This material, and the prospect of others to come, threatens the Columbia River, the backbone of the economy and ecology of the Pacific Northwest. Some groundwater is already contaminated. Estimates of when this plume will reach the river are uncertain.

Parts of Hanford are still littered with radioactive waste. Irradiated bodies of laboratory animals were buried there. The site is home to radioactive debris ranging from medical waste to the propulsion reactors of decommissioned submarines and parts of the reactor that melted at Three Mile Island. Some nuclear policymakers have called Hanford a “national sacrifice zone”.

A struggle for responsibility

In the mid-1980s, local residents began to be wary of an apparent excess of illness and death in their community. Initially, the strictest secrecy – reinforced by the region’s economic dependence on the Hanford site – made it difficult to obtain information for the citizens concerned.

Hanford Cold War-era notice board reinforcing strict privacy rules. Photo courtesy of USDOE

After the curtain of secrecy was partially lifted under pressure from residents and journalists in the area, public outrage sparked two major studies on the health effects that sparked much controversy. By the end of the decade, more than 3,500 downwinders had sued for illnesses they attributed to Hanford. A judge ultimately closed the case in 2016 after compensation limited to a handful of plaintiffs, leaving a bitter legacy of legal disputes and personal angst.

Clean-up operations at Hanford began in 1989, but were crippled by formidable technical challenges and mismanagement. The current estimate assumes that the work will continue until 2060 and cost more than $ 100 billion, over and above the $ 50 billion already spent.

A major challenge is to build a facility to extract the most toxic materials from tank waste and enclose them in glass logs to be sent elsewhere for permanent landfill. Projected costs have swelled to over $ 17 billion and the estimated completion date is now 2036. And with Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project mired in controversy, there is still no final resting place for these materials, which will be dangerous for tens of thousands of years.

The cleanup has progressed in other areas. The reactors were shut down and locked in “cocoons” of concrete and steel until their radioactivity decreased further. Hanford’s “Reactor B”, the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor, is now part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park.

Buffer zones around the exterior parts of the site, presumably clean enough for this purpose, have been converted into wildlife refuge areas. And in 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO), with a station located in Hanford, detected the first gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein. LIGO scientists chose Hanford for its remoteness and minimal interference with human activity.

Lessons to be learned

The Energy Ministry now considers many of its former nuclear weapons production sites to be fully cleaned up. Some remaining sites are involved in maintaining the current nuclear arsenal and could play a role in the production of new weapons. Others, like Hanford, are “old” sites where cleaning is the only task.

There is more surveillance of the nuclear weapons complex today, but serious concerns remain. In particular, inspectors discovered problems at the Los Alamos National Laboratory dating back to 2011 related to handling beryllium, a toxic material that can cause cancer and lung disease.

These problems at Hanford and other nuclear sites remind us that the production of nuclear weapons is a risky process – and that in Washington State and elsewhere, the legacy of the Cold War is still present.

William J. Kinsella is Professor in the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University. This article originally appeared on The Conversation. Read the original article here.



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