Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes a Health Concern

Concerns began to surface about the health effects of the nuclear materials at Hanford Nuclear Reservation upon its workers and people living nearby. More than a decade later, a major study on the effects of radiation exposure on workers at the reservation revealed high rates of cancer among them.

Summary of Event

Hanford Nuclear Reservation was created in 1943 on fifty-seven hundred square miles in southeastern Washington State to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project, which was manufacturing the first U.S. atomic bomb. Although Hanford was promoted by the Atomic Energy Commission Atomic Energy Commission, U.S.;health studies (AEC) and its predecessors as a model of safety, area residents began to suspect otherwise by the 1950’s. In 1974 and 1977, studies of Hanford workers were released that showed a high incidence of cancer, but it was not until 1986, with the release of hitherto secret documents, that scientists were able to begin a comprehensive assessment of the extent of the contamination to population and environment. Nuclear energy;safety concerns
Hanford Nuclear Reservation
Labor;workplace hazards
Workplace hazards
Radioactive contamination
Cancer;and nuclear radiation[nuclear radiation]
[kw]Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes a Health Concern (Beginning 1949)
[kw]Nuclear Reservation Becomes a Health Concern, Hanford (Beginning 1949)
[kw]Health Concern, Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes a (Beginning 1949)
Nuclear energy;safety concerns
Hanford Nuclear Reservation
Labor;workplace hazards
Workplace hazards
Radioactive contamination
Cancer;and nuclear radiation[nuclear radiation]
[g]North America;Beginning 1949: Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes a Health Concern[02770]
[g]United States;Beginning 1949: Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes a Health Concern[02770]
[c]Health and medicine;Beginning 1949: Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes a Health Concern[02770]
[c]Environmental issues;Beginning 1949: Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes a Health Concern[02770]
[c]Energy;Beginning 1949: Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes a Health Concern[02770]
[c]Business and labor;Beginning 1949: Hanford Nuclear Reservation Becomes a Health Concern[02770]
Mancuso, Thomas
Milham, Samuel
Stewart, Alice
Houff, William
O’Leary, Hazel

A nuclear waste storage facility under construction at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 1944.

(Courtesy, U.S. DOE)

By 1955, the Hanford facilities included eight nuclear reactors along with reprocessing plants, huge nuclear waste disposal trenches, and more than 150 large tanks for high-level nuclear waste. The AEC has only three major burial grounds and Hanford is one of them, along with sites in North Carolina and Idaho.

The first problems noticed by area residents were caused by the eight reactors, which were of the “single-pass” type: To keep the reactor cores from overheating, water from the Columbia River was diverted to pass over them and, after a period of eight hours or less, released back to the river. This brief waiting period may have been enough for the decay of the shortest-lived radioactive particles, or nuclides, and the settling out of heavy metals, but it was not long enough to eliminate the longer-lived radionuclides. As production rose, so did these discharges, until by 1959, 13,300 curies of radiation were released to the river per day.

By 1946, a report by a Hanford contractor showed that radioactive materials were found at a frequency of from six to thirty times higher in fish tissues than in the water, proving wrong the predictions of Hanford biologists that the river would dilute contamination. Later studies of algae, plankton, and crustaceans confirmed this finding, leading scientists to realize for the first time that humans, too, accumulate radiation. By the mid-1950’s, Hanford scientists and AEC officials were discussing closing the immediate stretch of the Columbia to sports fishing, but it was never done, nor was the discussion made public.

By the mid-1950’s, workers at Hanford and local residents were reporting a variety of health problems, including thyroid ailments, infertility, miscarriages, deformed babies, tumors, and leukemia. They began to ask if Hanford’s proximity might be the cause, but officials there repeatedly denied it, and vetoed suggestions for further health studies of the subject.

State officials in Washington and across the Columbia in Oregon had become concerned as early as 1949, when representatives from the two states and the Public Health Service formed the Columbia River Advisory Group Columbia River Advisory Group (CRAG) to educate Hanford personnel about the river and to work with them on issues of environmental contamination. CRAG, however, found Hanford officials consistently unwilling to share data or cooperate.

In 1961, surveys of the Columbia and ocean water near the river’s mouth, 350 miles downstream, by the Oregon and Washington Departments of Health found shellfish heavily contaminated. The state governments and local residents persisted in questioning the health effects of the facility, and in 1964, the AEC hired Thomas Mancuso to do a definitive study of Hanford workers, in which he was to correlate radiation exposures measured on badges employees wore with deaths as listed on death certificates.

In 1974, while that study was still in progress, Samuel Milham, an epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health, published a study noting a 25 percent higher rate of death from cancer, particularly pancreatic and rare bone marrow cancer, among nuclear workers than among other industrial workers in the state.

The AEC asked Mancuso to publish his study. With three years of his study still to go, Mancuso refused, and called in the renowned British radiation expert Alice Stewart for an independent assessment. Stewart confirmed what Mancuso had been finding, which was that Hanford workers exposed to less than half the federal safety limit suffered increased incidence of cancer of the lung, pancreas, and bone marrow.

Hanford officials disputed the conclusions vehemently. The AEC responded by cutting off Mancuso’s funding before he had finished. Twice, the AEC forcibly attempted to remove his data from him, and major critiques of his work were circulated without giving him an opportunity to respond. For nine years, the AEC continued to maintain that neither workers in the plant nor people living downwind of it (“downwinders”) could have been harmed by the facility’s presence.

In the early 1980’s, area residents became increasingly concerned when they heard that Hanford was being considered as the location for a high-level commercial repository of nuclear waste. In May, 1984, William Houff, a Unitarian minister in Spokane, Washington, preached a sermon on the subject. Afterward, people gathered to discuss the issues. By September, that gathering had led to the formation of the Hanford Education Action League Hanford Education Action League (HEAL).

In 1986, in response to mounting public pressure from HEAL and others, including a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. Department of Energy Department of Energy, U.S. (DOE) released nineteen thousand pages of documents that showed that DOE officials had been less than truthful. This flood of information caused considerable concern. Under the auspices of the Center for Disease Control, a panel was brought together to assess the health effects on workers and downwinders. On their recommendation, the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project was set up to evaluate the quantities of data now available.


There were three primary ways that radioactive particles from Hanford traveled through the environment to affect humans and other forms of life. The first pathway was through the air. Until the mid-1950’s, this was the route of the most serious contamination. Because of poor filtering techniques, accidents, and deliberate emissions, Hanford released from one hundred to seven thousand curies of radioactive iodine (I-131) per week over parts of Washington and Oregon during the first six years of operations. Between 1944 and 1957, a total of 538,619 curies were released, resulting in the largest known public radiation exposures in U.S. history. (The official estimate of radioactivity released from the accident at Three Mile Island was fifteen to twenty-five curies.)

I-131 is known to be absorbed by the thyroid gland, where it can cause cancer and hypothyroidism, which can be disastrous for fetuses, infants, and children. HERD has determined that I-131 affected downwinders, particularly children, primarily through milk from dairy cattle in the area but also through chicken eggs and leafy green vegetables. A minimum of thirteen thousand people may have been affected.

Emissions into the air did not include significant amounts of plutonium but did include 1,160 curies of ruthenium 103 (half-life of 39 days) and 388 curies of ruthenium 106 (half-life of 368 days), both of which affect the gastrointestinal tract. Other emissions included 64 curies of strontium 90 (half-life of 29 years), which acts like calcium and is absorbed into the bones, and 3,770 curies of cereium 144 (half-life of 284 days), which affects both bones and the gastrointestinal tract.

Surface water was the second major pathway. By the mid-1950’s, as airborne contamination diminished, contamination via water, particularly from the Columbia River, increased, peaking at more than 20,000 curies per day in April, 1959. These releases included 12.5 million curies of sodium 24 (half-life of 15 hours) and 2.5 million curies of arsenic 76 (half-life of 26 hours), which can affect the gastrointestinal tract, 229,239 curies of phosphorus 32 (half-life of 14 days) and 6.3 million curies of neptunium 239 (half-life of 2.4 days), which seeks the bones, and 490,993 curies of zinc 65 (half-life of 245 days), a nonspecific agent.

It has been estimated that the tissues of nearby algae, crustacea, and whitefish contained 100,000 times the contamination of the water itself as a result of bioaccumulation. Consumption of whitefish was the major route by which people were affected, particularly by phosphorus 32. Salmon were probably not a major source, since they do not feed on their way upstream to spawn. Native Americans from the eight tribes nearest the river have been particularly concerned about this pathway; fish are a staple of their diet, and tribe members eat fish parts such as organs and bones, in which contamination is most concentrated.

The last of the old single-pass reactors was closed in April, 1971. Radiation in the water has subsequently diminished, although sediments and life-forms within the river retain it. Groundwater is the third pathway for contamination, and it may ultimately be the most important. Contamination in soil seeps into groundwater; once there, it travels slowly toward the nearest river—in this case, the Columbia. At Hanford, soil was the primary disposal site. In 1986 alone, 1.4 billion gallons of low-level waste were dumped into the ponds, swamps, trenches, and basins at Hanford. High-level waste was stored in 149 single-walled and 28 double-walled tanks, 66 of which leaked, according to DOE admissions.

Documentation of cancer and disease at Hanford was one of the final blows to the claim that low-level radiation is not harmful. The work of the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project, moreover, has helped chart new territory in understanding the pathways of radioactive contamination. Furthermore, it was at Hanford that the secrecy in which the Department of Energy had operated was unraveled, and the enormity of the contamination revealed contributed to the growing trend away from reliance on nuclear power in the United States. Nuclear energy;safety concerns
Hanford Nuclear Reservation
Labor;workplace hazards
Workplace hazards
Radioactive contamination
Cancer;and nuclear radiation[nuclear radiation]

Further Reading

  • Barlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. Forevermore: Nuclear Waste in America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. An overview, including discussion of the politics of nuclear waste. Journalistic.
  • Benson, Allen B. Hanford Radioactive Fallout: Hanford’s Radioactive Iodine-131 Releases, 1944-1956. Cheney, Wash.: High Impact Press, 1989. Very technical, but one of the most extensive reviews of the medical problems downwinders face and how radiation causes them. Written by a chemistry teacher who lives in the area and who has been active with the downwinders.
  • Bertell, Rosalie. “Hanford, Washington.” In No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth. Toronto, Ont.: Women’s Educational Press, 1985. A thorough analysis of the nuclear industry by one who opposes it. The author is a senior cancer research scientist who has been a consultant for the Citizens’ Advisory Committee on the Accident at Three Mile Island. A well-documented case, with footnotes and index.
  • Macfarlane, Allison M., and Rodney C. Ewing, eds. Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. A study of the planned Yucca Mountain, Nevada, nuclear waste site and accompanying controversy, criticism, and protest. Includes maps.
  • Stenehjem, Michele. “Indecent Exposure.” Natural History, September, 1990, 6-21. An excellent historical review of the contamination of population and environment around Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
  • U.S. Department of Energy. Overview of the Hanford Cleanup Five-Year Plan. Richland, Wash.: Author, 1991. The official presentation of the possibilities for recovery. A short, optimistic pamphlet for the layperson.
  • Wasserman, Harvey, and Norman Solomon. Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation. New York: Dell, 1982. An overview of atomic radiation. Readable and comprehensive; footnotes and bibliography.

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