Radioactive Waste in Washington State

For more than forty years, beginning in 1943, reactors located at the Hanford Site produced plutonium – a radioactive waste chemical – for America’s defense program. Hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste was generated during the Hanford plutonium production days, a lot of which was not properly disposed of.

The Hanford Site

The Hanford Site sits on 586-square-miles of shrub-steppe desert in southeastern Washington State and is home to one of the largest Superfund cleanups in the nation. Buried beneath the ground, in storage tanks, are 56 million gallons of radioactive waste. Many of which are leaking into the ground.

The Site is divided into four National Priorities List (NPL) sites. These areas are part of a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) complex that includes buildings, disposal sites, the Hanford Reach National Monument, and vacant land. 

The Hanford Site is adjacent to the Columbia River which is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest.

The Hanford Site Production of Plutonium

The Hanford reactors produced 67.4 metric tons of plutonium, including 54.5 MT of weapon grade plutonium through 1987, before the last Hanford production reactor was shutdown. Hanford produced plutonium to build Fat Man, the atomic weapon that was detonated above Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and for the United States nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.


In 1980, on the heels of the 10th anniversary of Earth Day and amid toxic waste fires in New Jersey and contamination at Love Canal in New York, President Jimmy Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA).

CERCLA legislation quickly became known as the ‘Superfund.’ The act, passed with bipartisan support, intended to deal primarily with cleaning up hazardous waste sites where owners had shirked responsibility.

It also allowed injured parties to sue the polluters for damages in federal court. President Carter stated at that time that CERCLA was “…landmark in its scope and impact on preserving the environmental quality of our country” and that it “…fills a major gap in the existing laws of our country.”

The Hanford Site Denial of Contamination and Cleanup Efforts

In 1989, after years of dismissing concerns about radioactive waste contamination, the reservation’s management finally admitted the site needed to be cleaned up. But cleaning up nuclear waste is difficult. It can’t be burned or buried. The plan is to build a waste management plant that will turn the waste into glass, which can be stored away for thousands of years. It’s a slow, costly process. 

According to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) 2016 report, it is estimated that cleanup will wrap up in 2066 and peak annual spending would be about $3.5 billion.

DOE’s annual cleanup budget of more than $2 billion a year drives much of the economy of the Tri-Cities area of Washington State.  To date, 939 waste sites have been cleaned up, 428 facilities removed and over 17 million tons of waste removed.  Over 12 billion gallons of groundwater have been treated removing over 157 tons of contamination.

How to Protect Yourself

If you are concerned about radioactive waste leakage into your drinking water, reverse osmosis is the only quickly deployable technology to effectively deal with radioactive contaminants. Reverse osmosis is a pressure-driven membrane separation process Water is forced through a membrane with small pores by pressures ranging from 100 to 150 psi. Any molecules larger than the pore openings are excluded from the product stream along with a significant portion of the water. Treated water is collected on the other side of the membrane.

Reverse osmosis has been identified by EPA as a best available technology for uranium, radium, gross alpha and beta particles and photon emitters. It can remove up to 99 percent of these radionuclides, as well as many other contaminants. To learn more about Reverse Osmosis or to schedule a free water test, please call 509-381-7818 or schedule your FREE in-home water test here.


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