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Nuclear Waste Program

The History of Hanford

Hanford, White Bluffs, and Richland were small farming towns founded between 1905 and 1910. The towns had a combined population of 1500. Richland's 1940 census numbered its citizens at 200.

Richland Library Presentation

Discover more about Hanford's beautiful natural habitat and tribal significance. And learn about the progress and challenges of the ongoing efforts to protect human health and the environment.

In 1941, the United States entered World War II. Manhattan Engineering District was formed in June 1942 to build industrial plants to make Plutonium-239 and Uranium-235. In December of that year, Col. Franklin T. Matthias scouted the western United States to find a suitable site for the plutonium production facilities. Matthias reported Hanford's site was "far more favorable in virtually all respects than any other." In January 1943 the decision was made to build the production facilities at Hanford. Citizens were made to leave their homes. In the 30 months between groundbreaking in March 1943 and the end of the war in 1945, and for a cost of $230 million, workers built 554 nonresidential buildings, including B, D, and F Reactors, T, B and U processing canyons, 64 underground tanks, fuel fabricating buildings in the 300 Area, 386 miles of roadway, 158 miles of railroad lines, and a new city of Richland which could house 17,500.

Plutonium from Hanford's reactors went into the Trinity test bomb and into the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered unconditionally within a week.

After World War II, there was a lull at Hanford. But by 1947 the Cold War was underway, and the first postwar expansion at Hanford quickly followed. The Korean War led to the next expansion of operations. Hanford's plutonium production reached its peak between 1956 and 1963, with nine reactors along the river making plutonium. The newest reactor, N Reactor, also made steam and had an electrical power plant.

Enormous changes at Hanford resulted from events in 1986:

  • The U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) made available thousands of secret documents. The documents showed that defense-related work at Hanford resulted in off-site releases of radiation and considerable contamination of the site.

  • The Chernobyl disaster heightened public concern about all things nuclear. This led to the shutdown of the last reactor at Hanford that produced weapons material, the N Reactor.

  • USDOE selected Hanford as one of three potential sites for a high-level nuclear waste repository. This increased public awareness and concern throughout the Pacific Northwest about all aspects of Hanford’s nuclear operations.

  • Through a statewide referendum 84 percent of Washington voters rejected using Hanford as a high-level nuclear waste disposal site.
  • USDOE published its draft Hanford Defense Waste Environmental Impact Statement, revealing the volume and variety of wastes at Hanford.
  • Congress granted the state of Washington legal authority to regulate hazardous wastes at Hanford. Due to public awareness of contamination and the end of the Cold War the Hanford Site changed its mission from nuclear weapon production to environmental cleanup and environmental management.

Plans to clean up the waste began as early as 1958 (two years after the first tank leaks were reported). Regulation and the beginning of Hanford cleanup began in 1989 with the signing of the Tri-Party Agreement (TPA) between USDOE, Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Before 1986 environmental laws only regulated private industry and state and local governments. Ecology and the EPA had to decide how to apply environmental regulations to a federal agency (USDOE) at Hanford. Instead of lengthy litigation, these three agencies agreed to manage cleanup under the Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order, also known as the TPA. Signed in 1989, the original agreement had a schedule to clean up Hanford over a 30-year period. It defines roles and responsibilities between Ecology and EPA for regulating hazardous waste sites.

May 1989: Representatives from 3 government agencies after signing the Tri-Party Agreement.
Left to right: Christine Gregoire, Ecology; Robie Russell, EPA; Mike Lawrence, USDOE; and Washington State Gov. Booth Gardner.

If you are interested in Hanford cleanup and want more information or to get involved, please email or call 509-372-7950.


Historic Hanford Photos


The Hanford Story: Overview

What's in Hanford's Backyard