Every place on earth contains naturally occurring background radiation from the soil, rocks, and the sun. As such, scientists can determine baseline numbers for normal environmental radiation levels in an area prior to examining whether plants, animals, or people are receiving contamination from Hanford. To learn more about radiation, visit the Department of Health Office of Radiation Protection website.
The Hanford Site is about half the size of the state of Rhode Island because the government wanted a large buffer zone around the production facilities both for secrecy and public safety. Fortunately, only about 10% of the 586-square-mile site has radioactive or chemical contamination. So, yes, Hanford is generally safe because the waste there is contained. Further, it isn’t accessible to the public, and employees who perform cleanup work receive specialized training and wear protective gear.
Hanford currently has no active nuclear production facilities likely to cause a nuclear or chemical release. While there is no 100% guarantee that nothing will ever happen, a highly trained security force ensures no one will wander onto the site with ill intent. In the unlikely event of an accident at Hanford, there are many emergency management professionals and health experts working at Hanford and for the nearby counties and Washington State, who are trained to protect the public. Regular practice drills keep people alert and prepared.
Much of the original site is now part of the Hanford Reach National Monument, and includes the Wahluke Slope north of the Columbia River along Highway 24, and the lands within about a quarter mile of the Columbia River. The Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, the area west of Highway 240, and the sand dunes across from Ringold are still closed to the public. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will manage those lands in a manner that protects the fragile shrub steppe habitats left untouched since World War II.
The river shore below the Vernita Bridge is part of the Hanford Reach National Monument, and the river may be safely navigated by experienced jet boaters, kayak, or canoe. Some locations along the Hanford shoreline have no trespassing signs. There are groundwater sampling tubes in the shoreline that have radiation protection signs nearby to discourage contact.
Both the state and federal government are actively monitoring the river to ensure we are aware of all possible risks to human health and the environment. Numerous samples of soil, groundwater, river water, seeps, sediments, and vegetation are taken at regular intervals each year. The entire Hanford Site and the river are also periodically surveyed for radioactivity using various geophysical tools. Those supplies meet the requirements of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The results of these surveys are published in the Hanford Site Annual Groundwater Monitoring Reports.
Additionally, in partnership with the Oregon Department of Energy and the Washington State Department of Health, we sample sediments in the river behind the dams from McNary Dam down to Bonneville Dam to determine that there is no health threat from river sediments.
The analysis of water and sediment sampling referenced above shows that there is no known risk of picking up Hanford contaminants from swimming in the Columbia River. Many residents of the Tri-Cities have boats, jet skis, etc., and enjoy full use of the river.
The public does not have access to Hanford groundwater, and there are currently no potable water supplies on Site. However, there were 11 public water systems on Hanford that are still monitored as part of the Hanford Site Annual Environmental Report.
There are many communities downstream of Hanford that draw water from the Columbia for all or part of their domestic water supply. The City of Richland's water uptake is the closest to the Hanford Site. They have nearly 16,000 residential and commercial customers—including the Ecology Nuclear Waste Program office. As do all cities within the U.S., each of the Tri-Cities provides an annual drinking water report to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. No alternate water sources are needed due to contamination from Hanford.
In Washington State, the crops grown closest to Hanford are irrigated with water from the Yakima River or the Columbia above Grand Coulee Dam (Banks Lake). As part of the Hanford Site Annual Environmental Report, samples of alfalfa, asparagus, cherries, honey, leafy vegetables, milk, potatoes, tomatoes, and wine were collected from sites both upwind and downwind of Hanford.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, regularly samples those products to ensure consumer safety. The Washington State Department of Health takes split samples to verify the results are correct. Radionuclide concentrations in samples of food and farm products were at normal environmental levels.
At this point, there are no fish consumption advisories for salmon or other popular food fish such as steelhead or sturgeon. Visit the Department of Health's website for other fish consumption advisories across the state.
To monitor and track plumes heading toward the Columbia River, more than 1,000 groundwater and soil testing wells have been installed and are sampled on a regular basis. We also have installed groundwater treatment systems to control further migration of plumes. These plumes are large, complex, and lie at a depth sometimes exceeding 250 feet. The success of the effort depends on the effectiveness of existing treatment, the use of innovative technologies, and continued effort.
More information on Hanford groundwater contamination.
If we do nothing to address the existing problems or to clean up the waste in the tanks, some of the contaminants could reach the Columbia River in the next few decades. Other contamination may take more than a thousand years to migrate to the river. A number of contaminants such as tritium, chromium, nitrate, and strontium-90 have already entered the river from activities that took place on Hanford.
To slow tank leaks, all free liquids were pumped from the single-shell tanks to newer double-shell tanks from the 1970s to the 1990s, leaving solid saltcake and slurry (mixture of liquid and solid waste) in the tanks. However, liquids drain very slowly through the saltcake and sludge, and there is only one pumping location per tank. Over time, additional liquids drain to the pumping location, so liquids still in the tanks can only be pumped after they move to the pumping location.
To prevent further movement of soil contaminants toward groundwater, leaky underground water lines were repaired or removed. In addition, surface water ponds near the tanks were eliminated by diverting the water to other locations.
More information on leaking underground tanks at Hanford.
The U.S. Department of Energy owns Hanford and hires contractors to do cleanup work. Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversee cleanup activities to ensure that federal and state environmental laws are followed. All three agencies have agreed on cleanup milestones intended to ensure that the cleanup is thorough and protective of people and the environment. For this to occur in a timely manner and on a predictable schedule, Hanford needs adequate and stable funding. You can help us by communicating your concerns and views on Hanford cleanup to your legislators. Washington was there for the entire country when it produced weapons-grade plutonium throughout the Cold War. Now, we need the entire country to be behind efforts to clean up the toxic and radioactive legacy that remains from Hanford’s mission, which threatens the Pacific Northwest.