The Hanford Site, holding the Pacific Northwest at Nuclear Gunpoint

Hanford Nuclear Reservation’, just outside Richland, Washington


All over the area are buried nuclear waste sites, even in the parking lot of the public access B reactor.
All Photos by © Michaël Van Broekhoven, 2013

(before midnight May 27, 2013: 8336 Counts in 3hrs 32 min = 39.3 CPM background radiation, completely normal a meter off the ground on clean surface indoor, at a motel in nearby Kennewick, WA.)

  • In this blogpost, my attempt to grasp how serious it is that many of the Hanford Site’s underground nuclear waste storage tanks are already leaking.

The Hanford Site‘, as it is known now, is a mostly decommissioned nuclear weapons fission material production complex on the banks of the Columbia River in the U.S. state of Washington, operated by the United States federal government’s Department of Energy.  Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project in the tiny town of Hanford in south-central Washington, the site was home to the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, and at the height of its humanity-threatening madness supplied plutonium for tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.  It is now the focus of a mind-bogling cleanup challenge.

To the right of the Colombia River, the B Reactor, with further in the background some of the other reactors that were used to manufacture the nuclear fuel for tens of thousands of nuclear bombs.  Hanford Ste, Washington, May 28, 2013 Photo by © Michaël Van Broekhoven

To the right of the Colombia River, the B Reactor, with also visible further in the background along the river some of the other reactors that were used to manufacture the nuclear fuel for tens of thousands of nuclear bombs.
Hanford Site, Washington (USA), May 28, 2013.
Photo by © Michaël Van Broekhoven.

The site has been known by many names, including Hanford ProjectHanford WorksHanford Engineer Works or HEW and Hanford Nuclear Reservation (which I still think is the best name for it) or HNR.   Location:

Located in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, West of Idaho, North of California and south of the Canadian province of British Colombia, the Hanford Site lies upstream the Colombia River from The Dalles, and Portland, Oregon.

Located in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, West of Idaho, North of California and south of the Canadian province of British Colombia, the Hanford Site lies upstream the Colombia River from agricultural areas that depend on the river for irrigation, as well as cities such as The Dalles and Portland, Oregon.

Having Chai at a corporate coffee establishment, on the southern end of the 'Hanford Site', in Southeastern Washington

Having Chai at a corporate coffee establishment, on the southern end of the ‘Hanford Site’, in Southeastern Washington. Click image for an other unannotated site map at

Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the Trinity site, and in the A-bomb used to annihilate the (almost entirely civilian) city of Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945, killing more than 60,000 human beings in a flash, and tens of thousands more in the minutes, days and years following the nuclear blast.

As part of my checking out what’s up with Hanford, I visited ‘Reactor B’ in the 100B area on a public tour – See my blogpost about that: “My visit to Hanford’s “Reactor B’, World’s First Full-Scale Plutonium Factory.

My visit was not to drool over the science and the “amazing” engineering feat that was accomplished with the Manhattan Project, though, but to feel into this darkest of the darkest of humanity’s disconnect from the heart.   (I intent to share some reflections on the non-physical dimensions of radioactivity at some point.)

Now about the radioactivity stored at Hanford:

  • MUST WATCH:  Reporters from Television station King 5 NEWS recently did an investigative report series on this extremely troubling nuclear waste site.   Highly recommended*:

*hat tip: ENENews. For this and other news sources that report on nuclear issues, see my short Nuclear News LINKS.  Other options also available in the above tab ‘Nuclear‘.

So, those unknown materials referenced in the Sept. 7, 2012 briefing (shared in the above TV report) were spotted during a photographic inspection conducted by technicians in the first week of August 2012 in Tank 241-AY-102’s annulus — the 2-foot-wide space separating the inner and outer walls of the tank.

For the Full report from which this image was plucked (original shows more), click image. Source:

For the Full report from which this image was plucked (original shows more), click image.

The sample was tested and showed measurable amounts of Cesium-137 and Strontium-90, two highly radioactive elements that are a byproduct of nuclear fission. Some Plutonium 239/240 and Americium-241 were also detected.  A reference to the results in a Leak Assessment Report made public on Nov. 7, 2012 says the materials were registering 800,000 dpm (‘disintegrations per minute’, same as CPM, counts per minute), an extremely high level of radioactivity.

!–> That report:  (In it, “River Protection” is the short name of the corporate contractor managing the cleanup operation: )

An excerpt from the report:

So, “Window Open”…  I suppose that’s 45 millieRem, which converts to 450 µSv (450 microSievert in SI units). I use my own Radiation Units page for these conversions)… ok, that’s  high, but not insanely high for what this is (imo – and do read my DISCLAIMER). I’m not sure from what distance this measurement was taken.

(background radiation in the not-so-contaminated areas fluctuates between 0.05 and 0.20 µSv/hr, from what I could tell watching my Medcom Inspector Alert).

Now, for the Cesium-137, with a half-life of 30 years, dangerously radioactive for the next half millenium: 90.9 µCi/gm (microCurie per gram per minute)… what is that in the Si units Bq/Kg (Becquerel per kilogram), to be able to compare it more easily?

90.9 µCi/gm –> x60 = 5,454 µCi/g (per second, so it can be converted to Bq, which is always per second), which converted to Bq is: 3.363300E+006 Bq/g

To put these “202 million disintegrations per minute per gram”, in the SI unit Becquerel (disintegrations per second) and x1,000 for per kilogram, that translates to:

The stuff leaking out of the first wall of tank 241-AY-102 contains: 
3,363,300,000,000 Bq/Kg of Cs-137 !!!

WOWZA!   How much of that insanely radioactive goo is there in these double-shelled tanks?  Including other longer-living isotopes, in 2005:  about 2,960,000,000,000,000,000 Bq, according to this great overview document:

!!–>   -> Recommended to get the gist of what’s now being dealt with by thousands of people working on the cleanup effort at the Hanford Site.

Consider the potential devastation if the leaking that has already seeped into the ground, and the disastrous consequences if the current leakage were to escape the second wall, were to reach the Colombia River…    Source:


So, just to grasp the seriousness of a tank like this showing signs of leaking:  if you take the contents of these double-shelled tanks (2,960,000,000,000,000,000 Bq (data from last link: 296 E+16 Bq), which consists of a little more than 1/3rd Cs-137 with various other (some much worse) isotopes) and ponder it smeared it out over its surroundings at the contamination level of the Permanent Control Zone of  Chernobyl (555,000 Bq/m^3 of Cs-137; so, for this example case with a mixture of isotopes, let’s say 1.5 million Bq/m^3, so that the Cs-137 would be at just above the highest Chernobyl Permanent Control Zone Cesium level); (meaning the actual contamination would be far worse)… this would terribly contaminate and render uninhabitable more than 760,000 square miles. (My fallout map comparison of Chernobyl versus Fukushima shows such contamination maps and legends for Cs 137 and Cs-134 for Europe and Japan)…. here’s the little calculation:

1.5 million Bq/m^3 = 1.5 million times a million Bq per square kilometer

Spreading the whole cocktail of these double-shelled tanks:

2,960,000,000,000,000,000 Bq divided by 1,500,000,000,000 Bq/km^3 = 1,973,333, km^3 which converts to just over 761,910 square miles.  For comparison: Oregon 98,381 sq mi + Washington 71,300 sq mi + Idaho 83,570 sq mi, + all of British Colombia 364,764 sq mi, add up to a combined 618,015 square miles.

On top of that, the Hanford Site holds more than double when other storage tanks and solid wastes are also considered.


These big underground double-walled (and already beginning to fail) storage tanks contain enough radioactivity to utterly ruin the entire Pacific Northwest, and all waste combined at the Hanford Site, if not dealt with properly and timely, has the potential to practically render all of North America uninhabitable.   The Hanford Site is among the most pressing challenges to be dealt with on this planet.

After my visit to the B Reactor, I drove a half hour into the Hanford Site, until I reached the armed checkpoint, where I smiled at the guard and said

There it is…   After my visit to the B Reactor, I drove a half hour into the Hanford Site, until I reached the armed checkpoint, where I smiled at the guard and said “I guess this is as far in as I can go, right?” Without the proper badge, I had to U-turn. But I could see the worst contaminated site in the distance (with the cranes), where the cleanup operation is in full swing.
Hanford Site, Washington.  
Photo by © Michaël Van Broekhoven, 2013.

Hats off to the cleanup workers!   (You can follow the progress on Facebook.)

——Added after original posting:——-

Shortly after I posted this, the AP wire send out an article by SHANNON DININNY on June 2, 2013, which was picked up by several papers, including the Register Guard and the Seattle Times.  They make great additions to the above:

More related articles about Hanford and its effects:  



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11 Responses to The Hanford Site, holding the Pacific Northwest at Nuclear Gunpoint

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  6. MVB says:


    “[…] The lambs were born without eyes or mouths. Some had legs that had grotesquely grown together; others had no legs at all. Many were stillborn. Thirty-one were lost in a single night.

    On a pasture nearby, a cow was found dead, stiff and with its hooves bizarrely stretched up into the whispering wind. Down by the river, men of the Yakama tribe pulled three-eyed salmon from the Columbia. Trout were covered in cancerous ulcers.

    And then the babies started getting sick.

    It was in the spring of 1962 that farmer Nels Allison first noticed something was ominously wrong. “Son of a bitch,” he said to his wife. Sheep were always “the first to lie down and die” when something was amiss on Allison’s farm near Basin City, a rural town near the Columbia River in the far northwestern corner of the continental United States. He started referring to that deadly night “the Night of the Little Demons.”

    Although the Allisons have long since passed away, the shock endures. As chronicled by journalist Michael D’Antonio in his 1993 book Atomic Harvest, their tale is one of thousands of horror stories that took place in the area surrounding Hanford, Washington, the site of America’s first full-scale plutonium production facility. The site haunts the locals to this day — and imperils them. […]

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  9. So how safe is it to swim in the Columbia river
    near the Dalles Oregon in 2017?

    • MVB says:

      If things remain relatively stable, my guess is: almost certainly just fine.

      Too many variables to say a sensible thing about without additional lab tests of samples. But I, me personally, (opinion:) I wouldn’t worry about these traces downstream these days. Back decades ago there were probably times it was best avoided. But of those that swam at those time, the majority was likely unaffected too. Some likely were, though. It can take well over a decade, or until the next generation, for effects to become apparent, and by then it is nearly impossible to link it to any specific release or even spewing source. If there were a new serious situation, chances are the dangers will be downplayed by authorities, or even hushed altogether. But maybe they’ll be as forthcoming and honest as they can; not impossible in Oregon. (The governors of Oregon and Washington seem well aware of Hanford’s challenges and danger.)

      Sorry I can’t give a more definitive answer. It’s difficult to assess the dangers in badly contaminated areas; nearly impossible in very diluted watery places. I walked a beach in Fukushima in 2013 (watching surfers, who didn’t seem to care, some 15 south of Fukushima) and swam in the Pacific in Northern California in 2014.

      Not dead yet. ;-)

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