Hanford Superfund Site: An American Chernobyl Waiting to Happen

Washington (GGM) Analysis | March 4, 2021 by Attorney Michael Wells, PodcastLegal Fact and Fiction

Before COVID-19 hit some Americans probably believed a magic forcefield shielded the country from events other less fortunate nations endured. Not anymore. In the fall of 2019, critics scoffed after watching the hit Netflix show, Cherynobyl, that Cherynobyl could not happen in the United States because Americans would be too well prepared. The Hanford Superfund nuclear site in Washington state has 56 million gallons of waste from plutonium, will take 50 years to clean up, and has caused cancer, dementia, and death. Ronan Farrow called it in a 2016 article, “an American Chernobyl.”

Heart of the Matter. The American government built the Hanford site in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. It later produced the plutonium that was used in the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, which ended World War II. At one point, it produced two-thirds of the plutonium in the United States, which resulted in 56 million of gallons of waste, waste that still exists and has leaked into the ground and water for decades, earning it the description, “the most toxic place in America.”

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How this impacts you personally? Since 2010, 640 gallons per year of radioactive nuclear waste have been leaked from the Hanford site. Of course, this is just an estimate, and the U.S. Department of Energy improperly recorded or did not record many radioactive waste spills. Some of the waste reached the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River 200 miles away, killing all of the fish in the river along the way.

In fact, in 2013, the governor of Washington admitted one tank was leaking up to 300 gallons of radioactive waste per year. The company in control of cleaning it up knew about the leaks and did nothing. This means thousands of gallons of radioactive nuclear waste are still out there spreading all over the country, which affects all of us. 

If you still are not convinced, the pollution is airborne as well.

The waste produced “air toxins,” which have spread to Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Colorado. These toxins along with others in the area surrounding Hanford have caused cancer, dementia, thyroid disorders, and other handicaps. 

Again, these are the things that we know about, and much is not known since private contractors and the United States government lied about it and covered it up for decades. Sadly, sites that take fifty years to clean up do not stay self-contained.

What can you do about this? So much damage has already been done, but that does not mean it needs to continue. The Trump administration created a rule that deemed 90% of the waste at the Hanford site low-level, a rule the Biden administration is trying to change.

What you can do is think before you vote. Learn the candidate’s stance on the environment, in particular clean-up issues and regulatory issues. Try and learn as much as you can about these issues. This is one of 4,000 superfund sites in the United States. Learn about the ones around you, and see if there are any groups you can join. These problems are not going away by themselves:

Next Steps

While, contrary to what Jay Gatsby said, we cannot change the past, at least we can try and clean it up.

  • Join groups advocating for cleaning up your local Superfund site(s);
  • Educate yourself about climate change and other environmental issues;
  • Contact local, state, and federal officials about environmental issues; 
  • Be skeptical of what the government does or does not tell you.

Hanford is terrible, but that does not mean it has to stay that way even if it takes 50 years to clean it up.

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