Razor wire surrounds Hanford’s makeshift borders while tattered signs warn of potential contamination and fines for those daring enough to trespass. This vast stretch of eastern Washington, covering more than 580 square miles of high desert plains, is rural Washington at its most serene. But it’s inaccessible for good reason: It is, by all accounts, a nuclear wasteland.
During World War II, the Hanford Reservation was chosen by the federal government as a location to carry out the covert Manhattan Project. Later, plutonium produced at Hanford provided fuel for the “Fat Man” bomb that President Truman ordered to be dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, killing upward of 80,000 Japanese. In all, nine nuclear reactors were built at Hanford, the last of which ceased operation in 1987. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now estimates that as a result of the nuclear work done at Hanford’s facilities, 43 million cubic yards of radioactive waste were produced and more than 130 million cubic yards of soil ultimately were contaminated.
During Hanford’s lifespan, 475 billion gallons of radioactive wastewater were released into the ground. Radioactive isotopes have made their way up the food chain in the Hanford ecosystem at an alarming rate. Coyote excrement frequently lights up Geigers, as these scavengers feast on varmints that live beneath the earth’s surface. Deer also have nuclear radiation accumulating in their bones as a result of consuming local shrubbery and water. The Washington Department of Ecology has deemed Hanford the most contaminated site in North America — a jarring fact, as the Columbia River, lifeline for more than 10,000 farmers and dozens of commercial fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, surges along Hanford’s eastern boundary.
In 1989 Hanford changed from a nuclear-weapons outpost to a massive cleanup project. Since then, the site has become the largest and most costly environmental remediation the world has ever seen.
Read the rest of this investigation at Seattle Weekly. Research support for this story was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.