Imaging a Shattering Earth: Contemporary Photography and the Environmental Debate
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Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Washington

Constructed during World War II, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (Hanford) became the first large-scale plutonium manufacturing facility in the world. This facility is spread out over 560 square miles on SE Washington, running alongside part of the Columbia River. Containing nine nuclear reactors, now shut down, Hanford began its operation in 1944 with the Manhattan project and continued for half a century. During operation, Hanford grew to produce the majority of plutonium used in the nation’s nuclear weapons program including the release of plutonium-230 and iodine-131 into the surrounding area. One of the nine reactors, the B Reactor, produced plutonium used in the first nuclear test held on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity site in New Mexico, as well as that used on August 9, 1945, in the Nagasaki payload. This reactor was decommissioned in 1968. While the productivity of the facility was unmatched, it was also unequaled in the massive amounts of radioactive waste released into the air, land, and water of the surrounding area.

During the period from 1945 to 1951, Hanford released significant amounts of the harmful substance iodine-131 and other treacherous substances into the environment. This disaster created more than 50 million gallons of high-level liquid waste placed in 177 underground tanks, holding a colossal 53 million gallons of radioactive waste, as well as the creation of 270 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater, spread out over 80 square miles along the banks of the Columbia River. Even as the surrounding area deteriorated, the production of 2300 tons of spent nuclear fuel, about 25 million cubic feet of buried or stored solid waste, more than 1700 waste sites and about 500 contaminated facilities were generated. As these numbers grew, the impact of the released materials upon the environment increased as well.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation had and continues to have a huge effect on the environment, be it air, land, or water. The main radioactive substance, iodine-131, was carried through the air within 75,000 square miles. An estimated three million curies of radioactive material was dumped into the Columbia River during one year alone. In order to dissipate the heat produced by the nuclear reaction, large amounts of water from the Columbia River was used and afterward returned to the river. Consequently, the water containing radiation clearly exceeded drinking water standards.

As a result of such ecological degradation, the people were in turn negatively impacted. The threat of nuclear contamination was unforeseen by the average person because the emissions were nearly invisible. In fact, many claim that they saw nothing or that there were no huge clouds as one would imagine. However, those living near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation were at risk of numerous life-threatening diseases, such as thyroid cancer. Scientists say that as many as 14,000 people could have suffered some sort of health effect from the Hanford emissions. Other studies found that 2 million people could have been exposed simply through the land, water, and/or air. Scientists have estimated that about 10% of Hanford down-winders have died as a result of the emissions.

Given the millions of gallons of radioactive waste, an environmental clean up has been ordered. "Under direction of EPA, Hanford is engaged in the world’s largest environmental cleanup project, with a number of overlapping technical, political, regulatory, financial and cultural issues" ("Hanford Site Overview"). The clean up focuses on three goals: restoring the Columbia River, converting the central plateau to long-term waste treatment and storage, and preparing for the future. Up to this point, the government has spent $60 billion on the clean up process and officials estimate an additional $200 billion and 30 years before the job will be finished. The original plan was to convert the waste into a disposable form, but construction of the proposed treatment plant is now delayed by failure to meet crucial building codes and other safety requirements for the plant.

Selected Bibliography

“Cantwell Continues to Push for Hanford B Reactor Museum: Senator Testifies on Importance of Protecting Historic ‘Manhattan Project’ Site.” Senator Maria Cantwell official Web site, 9 March 2004. Weblink.

“Hanford Site.” Wikipedia. 4 October 2005. Weblink.

Johnson, Barry L. “Congressional Testimony: Medical Monitoring at Hanford Nuclear Facility.” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 8 March 2002. Weblink.

Kershaw, Sarah, and Matthew L. Wald. “Hanford Nuclear Reservation: Lack of Safety Is Charged in Nuclear Site Cleanup.” New York Times, 20 February 2004. Weblink.

“Resources for Reporters: Hanford Site Overview.” Department of Energy: Hanford Site, 5 May 2005. Weblink.

Schroeder, Chief Judge. “In re: Hanford Nuclear Reservation Litigation.” United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 15 October 2001. Weblink. PDF

Tizon, Tomas. “Cases Against Nuclear Plant Finally Heard.” Los Angeles Times, 16 May 2005, A12.

Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Washington Pictures in the Gallery