Atomic Heritage Foundation

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Environmental Impact of Cold War Operations

Environmental Impact of Cold War Operations

The Columbia River today

Impact on the Columbia River

This wind tunnel is helping research determine whether toxic airborne materials enter the chain through the leaves of plants. Photo courtesy of PNNL

Widespread Soil Contamination

Spent nuclear fuel from Hanford. Photo courtesy of DOE.

Two Geological Repositories

Hanford waste area. Photo courtesy of DOE

Waiting for WIPP

Waste tanks under construction at Hanford in 1944

Spent Fuel Sludge in Limbo

Scientists install equipment in the Columbia River to draw water samples from beneath the river bed, where ground water and river water mix. Photo courtesy of PNNL

Success Stories

  • Impact on the Columbia River

    Impact on the Columbia River

    The water from the Columbia River was used to cool Hanford’s reactors and prevent them from overheating. The water, after cooling the reactors, was expelled back into the river, which caused the river’s temperature to increase and added radioactive and toxic chemicals. During the 1950s and early 1960s at the height of Cold War production, the impact on the Columbia was significant.

    Narrator: During the Cold War, Hanford built six more reactors along the Columbia River and raised the power levels of the three earlier reactors to produce more plutonium. The waters from the Columbia River were used to cool the reactors and prevent them from overheating. Michele Gerber details the impacts of Hanford’s reactors as they dumped radioactive, toxic, and extremely hot water into the Columbia River.

    Michele Gerber: Hanford’s problem with the Columbia River began very soon after World War II. In World War II, yes, reactor effluent, or cooling water that had been through the reactors, was channeled to the Columbia River. But we don’t find very much effect. There’s not zero effect, but not much effect.

    It’s after the Cold War begins, and they’re building more reactors. And they’re also raising the power levels of the reactors that they already had built, and that essentially means pushing more cooling water through.

    And so, in the late 1940s is when the river effects become quite noticeable. And they’re noticeable, because the staff of the biology operation at Hanford is growing. They’re doing their due diligence. They’re measuring the water, the fish, the mud, all the parts of the river. By the summer of 1947, which isn’t very long into the process, they’re already saying, “Gee, the levels are double what they were last year in certain parts of the river or certain patches of mud.”

    By 1949, “Wow, now they’re three or four times what they were.” By the mid-1950s and the late 1950s, you’re getting exponential, I mean, exponential, in that a sample of a fish might be 50 times what it was. It might be 100,000 times what it was in World War II. The problems in the river are getting severe.

    There’s also chemical contamination. Reactors, there’s chemicals added to the water. But the main problem comes, because the water, the process tubes that hold the water, will develop a film over time. You have to purge off that film. You have to scrape it and rinse it off, or it will interfere with the fission reaction. You have to add purge chemicals and sometimes particulates to the cleaning water, the cooling water, run it through the reactor to purge the film off the tubes. Out would come an array of chemicals into the river.

    As the reactors operated hotter and with more water, the film developed faster. You’re at the point, by the mid-1950s, that you’re having to purge a reactor every month. In some cases, in the early 1960s, more than once a month per reactor. You’re having a huge chemical burden introduced to the river. In some cases, the site scientists would say in their secret reports, “The chemical burden is almost worse than the radiological burden.”  You had that. Of course, it’s all classified. The public is not being told. 

    The third problem is heat. Of course, the reactor water enters from the river at about, I’m going to say, a year-round average of 50 to 70 degrees. It’s going to come out up to almost the boiling point. In fact, over the years, the Atomic Energy Commission raised the exit water temperature limits over and over. To the point that by 1962, the operating limit was, as long as the water didn’t flash to steam, it could come out at one to one-half degree below boiling. It’s coming out very hot.

    By this time, also you got more water, less capacity to retain it, to cool it off before it goes back. It’s going into the river sometimes only 30 minutes after it came out of the reactor, so it hasn’t cooled very much.

    By the early 1960s, the heat load was such that the reactors, they were afraid were going to have to shut down in the summer. They couldn’t even operate because of the heat load in the water. They developed a secret plan with the Department of the Interior that runs Grand Coulee Dam to release large quantities, en masse, from Lake Roosevelt, which is the upstream side of the Grand Coulee Dam, and flush that, flush cold water, down through the Hanford Reach, so that the reactors could continue to run all summer long.

  • Widespread Soil Contamination

    Widespread Soil Contamination

    The chemical separation process used to extract plutonium emitted many harmful radioactive and other toxic byproducts up the stack. Carried by the winds, plutonium, americium, and other transuranic elements were dispersed across the Hanford Site and wafted to area farmlands. Soil contamination affected crops and animals that consumed the vegetation. Inevitably, the problem reached humans who consumed vegetables, milk from contaminated cows, and other farm products that had become contaminated. Dennis Faulk was the former EPA manager at Hanford and talks about the prevalence of radioactive and chemical contamination at the site.

    Narrator: Soil contamination in the Hanford area was first seen in flora and fauna. Next, it was found in the humans who consumed farm products like vegetables or milk from contaminated cows, as well as other contaminated fish and wildlife. The extent of chemical and radioactive contamination found in the soil as the Hanford cleanup began in 1991 is discussed by former EPA manager at Hanford Dennis Faulk.

    Dennis Faulk: For Hanford, it was a big unknown. No one had done radioactive cleanup before, and there was a lot of skepticism that it could be done. Turns out, cleaning up radioactive soils is probably one of the easiest things in the world to do because almost all of our waste sites, at least along the river, had gamma emitters. And of course, a Geiger detector can detect it in the soil. In retrospect, it turned out to be one of the easier clean ups because we could actually chase the contamination with our day to day handheld equipment. So again, that was a big surprise to a lot of people.

    The other surprise is just how much chemical contamination there is at Hanford. If you look at all the major groundwater pump and treat systems, they are all focused on chemicals, be it chromium along the river or carbon tetrachloride on the central part of Hanford. The reason for that is, the Department of Energy and their contractors were so focused during the production years on radionuclides, they never checked for chemicals.

    When a retention met its doom because it failed for a radionuclide, more than likely it also failed for chemicals. We didn't check for chemicals until the mid-‘80s. Of course, when we started looking for them, we found them everywhere.

  • Two Geological Repositories

    Two Geological Repositories

    There are two major geological repositories in the United States for the disposal of high-level radioactive materials. Yucca Mountain in Nevada was approved by Congress as a deep geological repository for spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste in 2002.  However, funding has been cut off since 2011 as Nevada’s Congressional delegation is opposed to accepting high-level nuclear wastes generated in other states. 

    The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or “WIPP” in New Mexico is an underground salt bed 2,000 feet below the surface. Since 1999, the natural salt formation has been used to store defense-related transuranic waste from the Department of Energy sites. This facility was closed in 2014 after an incident but reopened in 2017 and could receive some of Hanford’s transuranic waste.

    Narrator: High-level waste includes spent fuel and transuranic waste. Transuranic elements are manmade elements that have an atomic number greater than 92. High level waste contains highly radioactive contaminants, with half-lives over hundreds of thousands of years. These wastes need to be stored in deep geological repositories. Low-level waste, on the other hand, includes mildly radioactive contaminated materials, such as clothes and filters. These materials can be stored or buried on site, or sent to a designated low-level disposal facility.

    One of the main challenges of cleaning up Hanford is choosing the appropriate long-term disposal method for different levels of waste. Here, John Price talks about placing spent fuel and high-level transuranic waste in a deep geological repository, such as Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

    John Price: Transuranic elements have a really long half-life, so they’re going to be around for hundreds of thousands of years. The concept I think is, it’s safer to isolate them deep below the ground surface, where they’re not going to get into the environment any time soon. That’s why transuranic waste, and then, of course, high-level waste also, is supposed to get a high-level, deep geologic repository.

    The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was originally intended to be the repository for spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants and for high-level waste from Hanford. That repository got put on hold. It still isn’t licensed. It’s till not clear if that’s going to be the eventual burial ground for high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel.

    But lacking a deep geologic repository for high-level waste kind of complicates things, because instead of being focused on processing a waste and sending it directly to that place, you’re processing that waste and putting it into storage. I think one lesson that we’ve learned is, storing waste for a long time is a bad idea, because you have to spend a lot of money managing it. Containers can degrade, and you can have problems with waste when you’re storing it.

    It’s much more practical and less costly to ship a waste to its eventual disposal site. We just don’t have that ability right now with the tank waste. That’s one overarching problem.

    Narrator: Physicist Jay Shelton discusses the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, another type of geological repository, but for transuranic and low-level waste.

    Jay Shelton: The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which abbreviates “WIPP,” WIPP, is a major national nuclear waste disposal site, which is now active in southern New Mexico, near Carlsbad, in salt deposits. It takes waste that comes from national labs.

    It’s all related to military applications. It is low-level waste from making bombs. It is not spent fuel from nuclear reactors. It is the floor sweepings and the gloves and the booties and stuff that wasn’t very concentrated, is what goes down there.

  • Waiting for WIPP

    Transuranic Waste: Waiting for WIPP

    Hanford today faces many environmental problems, including high-level transuranic waste. This type of waste is dangerous because if absorbed or ingested, it can cause damage inside the body. John Price, the Tri-Party Agreement Section Manager for the Washington Department of Ecology, describes the issues of high-level transuranic waste at Hanford.

    Narrator: Over the years, Hanford has produced and buried about 70,000 containers of transuranic waste, manmade elements with an atomic number greater than 92. On the Periodic Table, these are above uranium. John Price, with the Washington State Department of Ecology, talks about why this type of waste is dangerous.

    John Price: Let me talk about what transuranic waste is. When there’s a nuclear reaction in a nuclear reactor, some of the atoms split in half and that gives off a lot of energy. There’s also neutrons floating around, and some of the uranium absorbs those neutrons. And when it absorbs those neutrons, it turns them into different elements, it turns them into bigger elements like plutonium and americium. And those are called transuranic elements, because they are above uranium on the Periodic Table.

    The big concern with transuranic elements usually is if people would inhale them, because then the elements sit inside their body and give off alpha radiation, which is very damaging inside people. Outside people, it’s not that big a deal, because your skin would actually shield it from going into your body. But inside your body, it hits sensitive organisms [misspoke: organs] and tissue and is a problem.

    Narrator: As John Price explains, the category “transuranic waste” was created by the Atomic Energy Commission.

    John Price: When the category of transuranic waste was created in 1970, there was no location to dispose of that waste. Today, there’s the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [WIPP] in New Mexico, which is the salt mine, basically, 2,000 feet below the ground surface. But at the time, there was no place to dispose of transuranic waste, so transuranic waste that was generated at Hanford during the production mission and then transuranic waste from other Department of Energy facilities was brought here.

    Because there was no place to dispose of it, it was buried underground to shield it from people and basically keep it in a safe, secure location. That waste was sitting and waiting for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to be conceived and built. Today, it waits to be retrieved, if it hasn’t been retrieved already, because it’s not supposed to be disposed of in shallow land burial. So, it’s waiting. It’s retrievably stored.

  • Spent Fuel Sludge in Limbo

    HL013 Sludge

    Reactors use uranium fuel rods to create plutonium. The irradiated or spent fuel rods that come out of a nuclear reactor contain plutonium and many other radioactive substances. Former manager at Hanford Keith Klein explains the problems with managing spent fuel.

    Narrator: During World War II and the Cold War, Hanford reprocessed the spent fuel rods to extract plutonium. Reprocessing is an intensive chemical process that produces large amounts of radioactive waste. The Carter administration halted reprocessing in the United States in 1977 because of concerns surrounding the proliferation of nuclear weapons. 

    Keith Klein: There was the spent fuel, which had issues, 2,000 tons of spent fuel that was just left in limbo after they stopped reprocessing. That was deteriorating and crumbling, actually, in the spent fuel pools. Plutonium that was in the production line, various stages of production, liquids, solids, you name it, several tons of plutonium that needed to be dealt with. Didn’t get the same attention, I think, maybe as the tanks.

    Narrator:  Spent fuel rods that were not reprocessed for plutonium were placed in the K Basins, two water-filled storage areas located in the Central Plateau, until a long-term storage solution could be devised. Over the years, the rods deteriorated and turned into radioactive sludge. The EPA’s Dennis Faulk explains why the K Basins are an issue, and the problems that impede their clean up.

    Dennis Faulk: In the scheme of all the work EPA oversaw, K Basins has been the thorn in our side. The philosophy was, “Let's get out there and do it. Let's do what we can do.” K Basins was one of those few projects that kept saying, “We can invent a better plan. We can invent a better plan.”

    They did it five times. Finally, the fifth time, they said, “Enough is enough.” To quote one of the DOE or contractor managers was like, “Plan the work. Work the plan. Plan the work. Work the plan.” And that gets it done.

    Narrator: Currently, Hanford is working to remove about 35 cubic yards of radioactive sludge through its Sludge Treatment Project, which started in 2009. The goal is to decontaminate the sludge, and eventually move it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

  • Success Stories

    Success Stories

    The Columbia River Corridor is the 220-square-mile region adjacent to the 50-mile stretch of the Columbia River that runs through the Hanford Site. Nearest to the city of Richland in the southeast is the 300 Area, where fuel manufacturing operations were as well as experimental and laboratory facilities. Along the Columbia River to the north and west is the 100 Area where nine reactors were located. Tremendous progress has been made in restoring the Columbia River Corridor over the last 15 years as Dennis Faulk, former EPA manager, and John Price, Washington Department of Ecology, discuss.

    Narrator: Over the past three decades, Hanford has made important strides in cleaning up the contamination left from plutonium production processes. Dennis Faulk and John Price share the progress made stopping the waste discharge to the soil, cleaning up the 300 Area, where fuel manufacturing operations took place, and the 100 Area, where the reactors are located.

    Dennis Faulk: The decision was made pretty early on to take care of all of the groundwater under the Superfund program. The state was agreeable to that. Then, we took down a lot of old buildings, using the Superfund process also. It's a different part of the Superfund process called removals. Again, very effective.

    The other thing about the cleanup that most people have lost is, probably the number one thing we did in early ‘90s was turn off liquid waste discharges to the soil. It's pretty hard to clean up groundwater if you've still got millions and millions of gallons of contaminated water continuing to recharge it. By about 1995, all of the liquid discharges, outside of one or two septic systems, had been turned off. That really, if you look at Hanford cleanup, it got started in earnest about 1995.

    Just about every plant was discharging waste. They weren't operating, but they still had cooling water that had to go through them, of course, large septic systems. Hanford is a big city—well, 20,000 people. So again, all of that infrastructure water still had to happen.

    They built two treatment facilities, one in 200 East and one in 300 Area. So those processes that still had chemicals in them and radionuclides actually went to treatment facilities. Then the water was injected in a site where it wasn't contaminated.

    John Price: I think from about 2000 or so, maybe the mid-1990s until about 2010, there was really a big focus on cleaning up the Columbia River Corridor. I think that’s been a tremendous success. I give Dennis Faulk a lot of credit for that.

    When we started in 2000, there were 50—50—radioactive waste burial grounds just along the Columbia River Corridor, and there’s another 25 in the middle of Hanford. But out of those 50 along the Columbia River Corridor, all but one have been cleaned up now. That’s a huge success.

    Because in the long-term, leaving radioactive waste in burial grounds less than half a mile from the Columbia River and in what’s a national monument now would not have been a good idea. In the long-term, people and animals would’ve gotten into them, and geologic processes would’ve taken place. Eventually, some of that waste would’ve gotten out into the environment. That’s been a huge success.


Quick Fact:
During the Cold War, the Hanford Site's environmental impact worsened from increased plutonium production from Hanford's nuclear reactors and support facilities.