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Radioactive River

Hanford poisons fish and people

When they eventually forced us onto this reservation, our forefathers made the provision in the treaty that we will forever be able to utilize this land we once roamed.

— Russell Jim, Yakama Nation


We are heartbroken to say our Columbia River may be the most contaminated river in North America. Hanford Reach, flowing through the Hanford nuclear site, maintains the largest run of fall Chinook that remains in the world. For those who keep the fishing spirit alive, the Columbia Plateau will forever be our home. The contamination at Hanford has far-reaching affects on the treaty tribes who eat fish from its nearby waters.

In 1941, the U.S. launched the top secret Manhattan Project. Its purpose was to develop a weapon that would bring an end to world war. Hanford had the conditions needed to build reactors for plutonium extraction: an abundance of clear, cool water to cool reactors, and an area that would provide power. The Hanford area was deemed “an isolated wasteland” and the people were expendable.

In 1943, the world’s first nuclear production reactor was built along Hanford Reach of the Columbia River. The government claimed 670 square miles of land along the river and began constructing the Hanford site. Fifty-thousand workers came from across the country to work at Hanford. White Bluff, Wash., went from 200 to 50,000 people in less than a year. Residents were told construction was for the war effort, and felt pressured to not question the government project. No one knew what the construction was until the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

On July 16, 1945, the U.S. detonated the first atomic bomb at the Trinity test site in New Mexico. Within a month, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. The plutonium that fueled the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs was produced at Hanford.

Hanford continued to produce plutonium until the late 1980s. This project put about 60,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Hanford is now closed and in environmental remediation stage. It is the focus of the largest environmental clean up project in the world.

Hanford has a highly complicated amount of chemically and radioactively contaminated material, storing an estimated 53 million gallons of waste currently in tanks. That’s about two-thirds of the national inventory of high-level nuclear waste. State and federal officials have long known that hydrogen gas could build up inside the tanks at Hanford, leading to an explosion that would release radioactive material.

The Columbia River flows through Hanford for 50 miles. Nine full-scale nuclear reactors have been constructed. Those reactors dump their waste straight into the river, except for the end reactor, which dumped waste into half-mile long ditches along the river.

There is tremendous waste associated with plutonium production, especially considering around 70 metric tons of plutonium was created at Hanford: 177 massive nuclear waste tanks have been constructed, storing a million gallons per tank. One third of these have leaked about a million gallons into the soil beneath the tanks. Once space ran out in tanks, a million gallons of waste was discharged straight into the soil. To “dispose” of other toxics, injection wells were dug and pumped chemicals straight into the ground. That contamination hits the ground water, which communicates with the Columbia River. From the river, it goes into biosystems.

The U.S. general population eats one meal of fish per month, or six pounds per year. Treaty tribes eat approximately eight meals of fish per month, 50 pounds per year. Traditional river people eat approximately 48 meals per month, 313 pounds per year. The chemicals these fish are exposed to are toxic and studies have shown them to cause cancer, damage organ systems, such as kidneys, and cause neuro-behavioral effects including learning and cognitive impairment.

Curvy spines, change in tissue color, flavor loss and tumors are evident when speaking with people who fish and handle and prepare fish.

The U.S. and its “war effort” continue to poison our river, our fish and our people to this day. Without clean water and soil our treaty rights are diminished. To those who have been affected by Hanford, our hearts are with you. They said until the end of time we can gather our foods and medicines. And we won’t accept that land unless it’s clean.