A Lethal Dose of Salvation

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, June 1999
A Lethal Dose of Salvation
Plutonium was born to kill at the Hanford Site, but its birthplace gave life to a perfect stretch of river

By Tim Cahill

It was the greatest flood the planet has ever known: a cataclysm that literally shook the earth along a thousand-mile path. It happened this way: During the last Ice Age, a finger of glacier reached down into Montana and Idaho, blocking the Clark Fork River. The river backed up, filling the mountain valleys of Montana and forming a lake larger than Lake Ontario. It was nearly 2,000 feet deep, and when the ice dam failed, Lake Missoula drained in 48 hours. A wall of water moving at 65 miles an hour and carrying 200-ton boulders thundered through what is now Spokane and blasted down the path of the Columbia River.

Starting about 15,000 years ago, there were more than 40 such floods in a 2,500-year period. Human beings almost certainly occupied the Columbia River Basin in that era, and stories of the flood must have passed from one generation to the next. In the manner of humans confronted by deadly forces beyond their comprehension or control, they must have regarded the flood-scarred land as both terrible and sacred.

I thought about this as I stood in the path of the ancient flood and filled out form BC-3000-002 (Radiological Area Visitor Form) and handed it to an attractive young woman at the Department of Energy's Operation Office in Richland, Washington. She gave me a radiation-measuring device called a dosimeter, a visitor's name tag to be displayed on the outer layer of my clothing, and an orientation booklet outlining security requirements and safety protocol at the Hanford Site. It was my responsibility to "read and comply with all the information identified on radiological postings, signs and labels, and follow escort instructions." On page ten there was a series of schematic drawings illustrating the meaning of various emergency signals. In case of fire, for instance, a bell would ring. The bell was depicted as having eyes, a nose, a mouth, and a single stringy arm holding a hammer. The bell was banging itself on the head with the hammer, producing a sound written as "gong, gong, gong." In another illustration, a cross-eyed siren emitted a steady blast transcribed as "HEEEEEE," which meant "evacuation." A third illustration, labeled "howler" was a siren with worried eyes and a megaphone for a mouth. It's "Ah-OO-GAH" sound meant "criticality," and the required response was "RUN," though no particular destination was given. Just run.

So all those James Bond films were perfectly correct: When the evil scientist's lab is about to blow, the Ah-OO-GAH horn really does sound.

I followed my DOE escort, Erik Olds, out into the parking lot, along with a poor excuse for an evil scientist with whom I had been corresponding for over a year. Randy Brich was a physical scientist working for the DOE, and not much into world domination. He was, in fact, an obsessed boardsailor with a minor preoccupation in mountain biking.

Randy had offered to set up a raft trip down the Hanford Reach, inarguably the most pristine and unspoiled stretch of the Columbia River. It is, Randy said, very much as it was when Lewis and Clark passed nearby, in 1805. There were elk and salmon and sturgeon and egrets and herons and white pelicans and peregrine falcons and ferruginous hawks, along with pygmy rabbits and several species of rare wildflowers. In fact, because the area was restricted for 50 years, biologists have only recently begun an inventory of flora and fauna. In 1996, for instance, two plants unknown to science were discovered.

Before the float trip, however, Randy thought I might want to tour the Hanford Site, which contains the largest repository of radioactive waste in the hemisphere. The unspoiled stretch of river and the toxic waste dump are one and the same.


We piled into a DOE van. Erik drove us to the restricted site, where we presented our credentials to armed men at a gate and rolled out onto the flat arid landscape along the Columbia River.

The remains of a few dry orchards, untended for over 50 years, stood gnarled on the sage-littered steppe: arthritic shapes against a baleful gray sky. Apricot trees. Cherries. The farmers who planted the orchards early in the century believed that the basin of the Columbia River could rival or surpass California's Central Valley in food production. Yes, the land was a shrub steppe environmentùa desert, most would sayùbut after the Grand Coulee Dam, just upriver, was completed in 1942, everyone knew that irrigation water would be plentiful. The future was bright.

But then, in February 1943ùin the midst of the Second World Warùthe government claimed the cities of Hanford and White Bluffs and much of the surrounding land. More than 1,400 people were given weeks or a few months to evacuate, and the government confiscated 640 square miles along a 51-mile stretch of the Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach. Hordes of workersùmore than 50,000 men and women hired to do "important war work"ùbegan breaking ground at the Hanford Site, erecting housing and 554 other mysterious buildings in only 29 months. The soil, laid bare in the frenzy of construction, was whipped by fierce desert winds into vicious swirling dust storms that dimmed the sun, snarled traffic, and sand-blasted exposed skin. Hundreds of workers typically quit and left after one of these "termination winds."

Only a very few top scientists and engineers knew the purpose of the project. Some workers joked that it had to be President Roosevelt's summer home. But no one talked about his or her job. FBI informants were everywhere. People were fired for injudicious comments. The secrecy was so complete that not even Vice-President Harry Truman was informed about the purpose of the Hanford Project until after Roosevelt died in April 1945. On July 16, the first atomic bomb, code-named Trinity, was detonated not far from Alamogordo, in south-central New Mexico. It was armed with plutonium produced at the Hanford Site.

On August 6, 1945, another atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, killing some 80,000 people. The Hiroshima bomb was armed with uranium produced at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Three days later, a blast of blinding light mushroomed over Nagasaki; 39,000 people died. Human bodies instantly evaporated at ground zero, while at the periphery of the blast others briefly shivered and then collapsed into ashes before the nuclear termination wind.

The plutonium that fueled the Nagasaki bomb was produced at Hanford's B Reactor.


B Reactor was built over a period of 16 months and began producing plutonium in the fall of 1943. Today it's a pile of weathered gray cement blocks several stories high. Erik, Randy, and I were met at the door by a volunteer tour guide, Roger Rohrbacher, who had come to work at Hanford in the spring of 1944. "I thought I was coming to a chemical plant," he said.

We moved down a gray hallway, past water pipes stacked on water pipes. The Hanford Site was chosen partly because water from the Columbia could be used to cool the reactor. B Reactor required 105,000 gallons of water a minute. Red tags hanging from some of the valves read, "Deactivated System. Deactivation Complete 2/22/68."

The reactor, Roger said, was built on a 23-foot-thick slab of concrete. We passed through a doorway and stared up at the front face of the reactor. It loomed three stories over us, and looked like nothing so much as a giant punchboard. Except that the pins that fitted into the graphite holes were 28-foot-long rods. There were 2,004 of these "process tubes," which contained uranium that was converted to plutonium by the bombardment of neutrons.

In the dim light, the atomic pileù"we called it 'the unit,'" Roger saidùseemed vaguely unreal, like something designed for a Buck Rogers space opera. I glanced up into the darkness and saw a catwalk where two spectral figures in full yellow radiation suits stood looking down at us, silhouetted in the dim light from an open doorway.

"What are they doing?" I asked Roger.

"Completing the decontamination," he said. "Desks and file cabinets and stuff up there."

We moved around the back of the pile to the control room, where there was a chair for the reactor operator. It was positioned in front of a curving green wall in which there were nine gauges. It looked a bit like the cockpit of a commercial jetliner, only much less complex. A sign said, caution: bumping panel may cause scram. "Scram" is an obscure acronym for "safety control rod ax man."It means shut the reactor down. Or else.

In all, nine reactors were built at Hanford, Roger said. People of his generation are proud of the work they did here. In their view, it won the Second World War, and it won the Cold War. Players for the Richland High School football team, the Bombers, wear helmets emblazoned with a mushroom cloud.

All of Hanford's reactors are decommissioned now, and the civilian administrators of the nuclear-weapons establishment, after years of secrecy and downright lying, have initiated a policy of openness. There are 54 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in 177 underground tanks, most of them buried in what is called Area 200. The DOE says that it will take decades for a complete cleanup. The current unofficial target date is 2035.

Hanford encourages visitors to think of the deadly toxins festering there as "legacy wastes": a legacy of the Second World War, a legacy of the Cold War, a legacy of victory.


The Columbia River rises in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. The waters flow south into the United States, abruptly turn west, and empty into the Pacific north of Portland, Oregon. In between, in Washington State, there are seven dams along the Columbia, forming a series of lakes and reservoirs and "slackwater" sections of the river. The last stretch of the free-flowing Columbia is the Hanford Reach, 51 miles of bright-blue water flowing past gray blocky cement munitions plants and through a desert painted in dull sage-stippled pastels. The land, in its undeveloped and extravagant abundance, is another legacy of Hanford, and an entirely unintended one at that.

Less than 6 percent of the nuclear reservation was developed. Now that Hanford's plutonium mission is over, the DOE plans to hand over control of the land it confiscated to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The strange and fortuitous irony is that the security zone created around the nuclear munitions plants protected populations of fish, bird, and insect life threatened with extinction elsewhere. Several species of salmon spawn in the waters below the reactors, and proponents of a Senate bill to designate the Hanford Reach a Wild and Scenic River argue that the designation could be the easiest and least expensive part of the salmon restoration programs mandated by federal courts.

Getting permission to camp along the river was a matter of some bureaucratic maneuvering, requiring several weeks of negotiations and a slew of letters. Randy Brich, who spearheaded the effort, described our excursion this way: "A float trip courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy, sponsored by the Desert Kayak and Canoe Club, and underwritten by Battelle's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory." (Battelle Memorial Institute is one of the four major DOE contractors at the Hanford Site.)

The river was running at about five miles an hour, but the water was high, almost glassy, and deep blue, mirroring deep-blue sky. Pat Wright, a Battelle safety officer, and I took turns rowing his drift boat and drinking beer. We were flowing gently down the stream in company with a kayak, a couple of catarafts, and a canoe. Most everyone worked at Hanford. On our right, the pump houses and reactor buildings and pipes running into and out of blocky gray cement buildings looked odd and out of time, rather like the shell of an old carùa Model T, for instance, rusting away in a field full of wildflowers. From a distance, the buildings were dwarfed by the overwhelming arc of sky.

As we floated by the last reactor to be decommissioned, N, there was the disconcerting sound of a cell phone ringing, and Rick Raymond, a Lockheed Martin project manager who was paddling one of the catarafts, peeled off from our flotilla. He caught a back eddy under an unmanned glassed-in guard tower. It was very quiet on the river. The only sounds were the whisper of the wind and the mad birdbrained screams of mud swallows building nests on the banks of the river. In this relative silence, Rick's voice carried well, and I could hear him speaking with some urgency.

Later, when he caught up with us, I accused Rick of committing business on a river trip.

"Sorry," he said. "One of our tanks is belching hydrogen." Some of the double-walled waste tanks contain a million gallons of waste: a horrifying goulash of plutonium syrup and cesium and strontium and other venomous toxins. The tanks produce hydrogen, which is a by-product of radiolytic decay. Hydrogen is highly flammable. The tanks are built to vent gases, but sometimes a thick crust forms on top of the waste, and the hydrogen collects underneath in an ominous growing bulge. In these cases, giant circulating pumps are used to vent the tank.

This was what was happening as I floated past the tank farm. An explosion in the enclosed underground tank could hurl radioactive waste sludge high into the atmosphere. "Technically," Rick said, "it's what we in waste management call 'a bad thing.'"

Randy Brich, who was paddling a canoe nearby, recited the Hanford mantra: "A nuclear waste is a terrible thing to mind."

A snowy egret rose from the banks across from the reactors and kept pace with us as we drifted along. Ferruginous hawks worked the hillsides, river left. Ahead, along a great ten-mile curve of river, the White Bluffs loomed 350 feet overhead. They were crumbly sandstone deposits containing the fossilized remains of mastodons, beavers the size of bears, camels, bisonùthe whole Ice Age menagerie.

Just across from Locke Island, a part of the Bluffs had collapsed into the river. The geologists in our group blamed irrigation above the cliff face, in an area known as the Wahluke Slope. Further irrigation could cause more sloughing and thus damage the salmon-spawning grounds below. Happily, this April, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced the Department's desire to preserve 90,000 acres of the Wahluke Slope as a wildlife refuge.

We made camp at a cove set deep into the White Bluffs and then set off up a road previously used by security vehicles. The bladderpod, a species of mustard (and one of the plants new to science), grows here. We found several of them in early bloom, sporting yellow cruciform flowers, at the very top of the Bluffs, where they spread out and hunkered down low against the termination winds. I glanced back down the river toward the reactors, which lay along the path of the ancient cataclysmic floods. There were forces here beyond human comprehension, and I regarded the land and the river below as both terrible and sacred.

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