A (Bad) Trip to the Most Radioactive Place in America

Why Hanford?

The Hanford Site, January 1960. Photo courtesy of the US Dept. of Energy.

If you’re like any number of people I’ve talked to over the last few years, you aren’t really sure what Hanford is all about. Maybe you haven’t even heard of the place; I certainly wouldn’t blame you. It is, after all, off the beaten path. The Hanford Nuclear Site is located in eastern Washington State. It’s far from Seattle, three hours to the Idaho border, on the banks of the Columbia River, and a couple of hundred miles upstream from Portland, Oregon.

I won’t inundate you with all the details just yet; we’ll get to all of that later. But here’s a modest primer: Hanford was home to the US government’s gargantuan plutonium operation. The site churned out nearly all of the radioactive fuel that was used in the country’s nuclear arsenal. Like a ceaseless conveyer belt, Hanford generated plutonium for nearly four long decades, reaching maximum production during the height of the Cold War. Now, however, Hanford no longer produces plutonium. Instead, it’s a sprawling wasteland of radioactive and chemical sewage, a landmass three times larger than Lake Tahoe. It’s also the costliest environmental remediation project the world has ever seen and, arguably, the most contaminated place on the entire planet.

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JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

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