Plutonium Production at Hanford near Native American Reservations, USA


In response to security uncertainties and to increase the defense capabilities of the United States, the U.S government chose Hanford, Washington as the home to the first full scale plutonium production facility as part of the Manhattan Project. Due to the size of the facility more than 1,500 people were told to evacuate their homes and infrastructure including 554 new buildings replaced them. The production of plutonium and eventual modification in to a waste storage facility continued until the late 1980s. In 1988 the facility was put on the National Priorities List for the Superfund Clean Up. What was most concerning was the proximity of the contamination to the Columbia River that is the water source for millions of people. Clean-up continues even today with the threat of ground water contamination still looming. Another aspect of this EJ conflict, is that there were a number of Native American tribes living on this land and had rights granted through treaties to use the resources in this area that are now terribly polluted. Their natural rights were removed and took away part of their abilities to follow traditional ways of living.

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Basic Data
NamePlutonium Production at Hanford near Native American Reservations, USA
CountryUnited States of America
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Military installations
Specific CommoditiesPlutonium
Industrial waste
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsThe US Department Of Energy estimated that radioactive and chemical contamination included: 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel, stored in two aging basins just 400 yards from the Columbia River, 12 tons of plutonium in various forms, 25 million cubic feet of buried or stored solid waste, much of it in unlined trenches, 1400 waste sites (more were discovered later), 500 contaminated facilities, 200-square miles of contaminated groundwater, with 80-square miles exceeding the EPA's "acceptable risk" for drinking water standards, and 53 million gallons of high-level nuclear waste in 177 aging underground storage tanks.
Project Area (in hectares)151,773
Level of Investment (in USD)Clean up has spent 40 billion in the last 20 years on clean up. Expected to take another 110 billion to finish the clean up
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population1500
Start Date1944
Relevant government actorsArmy Corps of Engineers, United States Executive, Washington State Department of Ecology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersLeague of Women, Voters, Heart of America Northwest, the, Government Accountability Project and Columbia, Riverkeeper, Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingFarmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Forms of MobilizationAppeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Potential: Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Displacement
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseThe project and location is still in operation. The plutonium waste storage facility recently found a leak that has begun contaminating a small area of land. Remediation plans are being formed by the US Department of Energy.
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.Not Sure, the potential for contamination as well as the degradation of areas that were promised through treaties to the Native American population was allowed to happen for decades by the U.S government. The contamination is rampant and the land will most likely never be able to serve the same purpose as it did prior to the facility in 1944. While it is good that the mobilization allowed for the clean up process there are several issues that will never be resolved.
Sources and Materials

Oregon Department of Energy . (n.d.). Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's) about Hanford. Oregon DOE. Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility . (n.d.). The Challenge of Hanford and Health . Seattle : Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility


Hanford Superfund Site History
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Voices of the Manhattan Project
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Daily Mail - America's most toxic nuclear weapons production site which produced plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki is now a national park
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Other Documents

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Other CommentsThis is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan.
Meta Information
ContributorSara Orvis, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update05/02/2018