Hanford Site

From Academic Kids

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Hanford Site during the Manhattan Project.

The Hanford Site occupies 1,518 square kilometers (586 square miles) in Benton County, south-central Washington. It was established in 1943 during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to provide the plutonium necessary for the development of nuclear weapons. The former towns of White Bluffs and Hanford were evacuated to make room for the site.

Plutonium manufactured at the Hanford site was used in constructing the first nuclear weapon at Trinity site, as well as Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

Currently, the Hanford Site is engaged in the world's largest environmental cleanup, with many challenges to be resolved in the face of overlapping technical, political, regulatory, and cultural interests. The cleanup effort is focused on three outcomes: restoring the Columbia River corridor for other uses, converting the central plateau to long-term waste treatment and storage, and preparing for the future.

Although most of the original Hanford Site is in Benton County, approximately 20% is across the Columbia River in Grant and Franklin counties.


History of the Hanford Nuclear Site

The Uranium Committee of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) decided to sponsor an intensive research project on plutonium,that had been isolated in a University of California laboratory only nine months earlier. The OSRD placed the contract with the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab).

In June 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers formed the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) to construct industrial-size plants to manufacture the plutonium and uranium for the Met Lab scientists. In December the Hanford region was chosen as "ideal in virtually all respects" (Matthias 1987).

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Image of the surface of waste found inside double-shell tank 101-SY at the Hanford Site in eastern Washington State. April 1989.

The first three, full-scale nuclear reactors were built in five months. The reactors (B-Pile, D-Pile, and F-Pile) operated at 250 megawatts (MW). The 400 MW H-Pile was added in 1949, and the 250 MW DR (D-Replacement) started up in 1950. The C-Reactor of 600 MW, which was started up in 1952, soon became the chief development and testing machine at the site. Within three months of its startup, its primary function was experimentation for the design of the "twin" K-Piles (KE and KW) - the 1955 "jumbos," each outputing 1,800 MW.

By the early 1960s, extensive modifications and upgrades had allowed the five 1940s piles to achieve power levels ranging from 2,015 to 2,210 MW each, C-Reactor to attain 2,500 MW, and the K-Piles to reach 4,400 MW each.

All eight nuclear reactors were built along Hanford Reach on the Columbia River. With an average individual life span of 22 years, the reactors were closed down between 1964 and 1971.

The eight reactors' cooling systems drew and returned water from the river. Before being pumped back into the river, the used water was held in large tanks known as Retention Basins for up to six hours. Longer-lived isotopes were not affected by this retention, and several terabecquerels entered the river every day. By the early 1960s, there were protests from the health departments of Oregon and Washington, as well as the U.S. Public Health Service.

The site had a problem with "slug failures," - the unwanted penetration of a fuel element's aluminum jacket (can) by cooling water, causing the uranium to swell and block the coolant flow within the process tube and melt the slugs within that tube. No slug failures occurred during World War II, but by December 1945, 125 slugs with "blisters" had been found by visual inspection in the irradiated fuel storage basins at the rear of the three reactors. For the next seven years, blistered and ruptured fuel elements were opened and examined using a special underwater lathe in steel tanks located in the 111-B Test Building. After the 327 Radiometallurgy Facility was ready, with its hot cells, the 111-B Building continued to be used as an examination facility for sections of corroded and failed process tubes.

When fuel ruptures did occur, the process tube containing the failure was emptied into the irradiated fuel storage basin. Sometimes, severe ruptures had to be removed with a rotary reamer and a hydraulic ram, with the the damaged process tube then split with a special tube splitter, and then pulled out and chopped into short lengths with a unique Hanford Site instrument known as the "guillotine."

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Grand opening of the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility (ERDF)

During the 25 years that the site operated, many puzzles relating to the practicalities of nuclear piles were solved and new machines developed to improve operating efficiencies. However, while technical operating challenges progressed well, waste disposal solutions remained elusive, and effluents continued to be released to the Columbia River.

Most of Hanford's reactors were shut down in the 1960s but nuclear waste still remains at the site. About 10,000 workers work to consolidate, clean up, and mitigate waste, contaminated buildings, and contaminated soil. Cleanup to a nationally accepted level will likely take until 2030.

Contemporary Hanford

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Highway sign on one of the roads entering Hanford Site

Although uranium enrichment and plutonium breeding have been slowly phased out at Hanford, its strong legacy remains in Richland, Washington which was created to house Hanford workers. The Herculean feat of feeding the United States' vast nuclear program in an analog world created a strong community of highly skilled scientists and engineers.

Hanford became the location of the Department of Energy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory owned by the United States government and operated by Battelle Memorial Institute just north of Richland, Washington. A map of the site can be found on the Benton County Emergency Services web site. [1] (http://www.bces.wa.gov/hanford%20site%20map.htm)


  • D'Antonio, Michael, Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America's Nuclear Arsenal (New York: Crown, 1993). ISBN 0517589818

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