The Hanford Nuclear Site is located in southeastern Washington State, in the town of Hanford located in Benton County. The site was originally established in 1943 to produce plutonium for the first nuclear bomb, which was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. Production slowed after the end of World War II, but increased again in 1947 to answer the demands of the Cold War. Nuclear technology developed rapidly during the following years. The Hanford site, which eventually boasted a 51,000 person workforce, worked to develop nine nuclear reactors and five plutonium processing complexes over a 586-mile parcel of land.
Originally home to several tribes of Native Americans, the land that hosts the Hanford Site filled with pioneers and settlers around the mid-1800s. Towns such as Hanford and nearby White Bluffs were formed to support surrounding farms and ranches, and the thriving small towns served many residents. In 1943, the government made a decision to relocate portions of the Manhattan Project to the Hanford Site, and residents of Hanford and White Bluffs were forced to abandon their homes and make a life elsewhere, receiving just a small stipend from the government as compensation to leave the homes and farms they had worked so hard to develop.
Only a minute number of workers at the Hanford Site knew what they were building or what the impact on the surrounding people and land would produce. Workers were told only that they were doing important war work; work that would benefit the security of America and its people. The majority of the employees at the Hanford Site had no idea that the work they were doing released significant amounts of radioactive materials into the air, land and into the Columbia River, due to what would later be defined as “inadequate waste disposal processes”.
The Hanford Site would remain in operation until 1987, when the last nuclear reactor ceased operation. Decades of nuclear and plutonium production left solid and liquid wastes that posed imminent risk to the area and led to serious contamination of the Columbia River. In 1989, the Washington State Department of Ecology, along with the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, entered into what is now called the TPA, or Tri-Party Agreement, an agreement made that would be committed to the cleanup of the Hanford Site and surrounding affected areas, including the Columbia River.