5 Contaminated U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites

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Given all the breaking news out of Washington recently, an interesting story from the other Washington went mostly unnoticed. On May 9, a tunnel collapsed at a nuclear waste site in Hanford, Wash., forcing hundreds of workers to evacuate and raising concerns about the possible release of radioactive waste. Subsequent testing has found no leaks, but the incident highlighted the dangerous conditions at the Hanford Site, which is one of the most contaminated places on Earth. Cleanup there began 30 years ago, but the work will not be completed until the 2060s. Hanford and some other sites around the country that were vital to the development of the U.S. nuclear arsenal have been left with a toxic legacy.


5. Pantex Plant

The Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, has been the only U.S. facility for assembling and disassembling nuclear weapons since 1975.

A relatively unheralded site, the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, has played a surprisingly large role in America’s nuclear history; it’s the only site in the U.S. where nuclear weapons have been assembled and disassembled since 1975. Since the U.S. halted production of new nuclear weapons in 1991, the facility has also been responsible for the maintenance and surveillance of the nation’s nuclear weapons. Pantex has been listed as a Superfund site since 1994, with soil contamination from a wide variety of sources, including depleted uranium and traces of plutonium. One major objective is preventing any contaminants from the groundwater beneath the plant from reaching the Ogallala Aquifer, the major source of drinking water and irrigation in the Great Plains states.


4. Abandoned Uranium Mines in the American West

The American West is dotted with hundreds of abandoned uranium mines, including this one in Uravan, Colo. © Atomically Speaking

The creation of weapons-grade Plutonium-239 requires uranium ore. The majority of that uranium in the U.S. has been mined in the American West, mostly in Wyoming and the Four Corners region. Hundreds of these old uranium-mining sites have not been cleaned up, and pose an environmental threat to surrounding communities, which in many cases are predominately poor and majority Native American. Disaster has struck before — in 1979, a tailings pond dam at Church Rock, N.M., failed, causing the largest release of radioactive waste in U.S. history. While the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant earlier that year drew international attention, the Church Rock incident released more than three times as much radiation, yet it went almost unnoticed in the media. Some 93 million gallons of waste and 1,000 tons of solid waste flowed into the Puerco River. Yet despite the magnitude of the incident, the government refused to declare Church Rock a disaster area.

Progress is being made in tackling the mess left behind by this mining. In early 2017, the U.S. government, the Navajo Nation and two mining companies reached a $600 million agreement to clean up almost 100 abandoned uranium mines on the reservation.


3. Oak Ridge Reservation

Workers clean up a contaminated area at the Oak Ridge Reservation. Credit: Department of Energy

The story of Oak Ridge, Tenn., is one of the most amazing tales of World War II. Almost overnight, the U.S. government built this town (aka the “Atomic City”) in Eastern Tennessee to help develop an atomic bomb through the top-secret Manhattan Project. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is today the largest multi-program science and technology laboratory in the U.S. Oak Ridge Reservation has been listed as a Superfund site since 1989.


2. Savannah River Site

The Savannah River Site began producing materials for nuclear weapons in the 1950s. © Bill Golladay

This site along the Savannah River 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Ga., played a vital role in the U.S. nuclear buildup; even today, it remains the sole source of tritium, a key component in nuclear weapons. SRS still employs more than 10,000 people, with much of the work involving cleanup of the deadly legacy left from that plutonium and uranium extraction that began in the 1950s. Through the decades, thousands of workers there have claimed that exposure to hazards at the site made them sick; according to the postandcourier.com, the U.S. government has settled more than $1 billion in claims from SRS workers through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

While cleanup at the site has been ongoing since the early 1980s, it is tedious work. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the target date for completion is 2065.


1. Hanford Site

A box of radioactive waste is removed from an underground storage trench at the Hanford Site. Credit: Department of Energy

This is where it all began. This nuclear production complex along the Columbia River in central Washington supplied the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb test, and nine nuclear power plants there produced most of the plutonium for America’s nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Today, it’s regarded by many as the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere, containing 60 percent of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste. How much is that? According to the Physicians for Social Responsibility, 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive and chemical waste are stored at Hanford, in aging underground tanks.

Even worse, some of the waste at the 586-square-mile site has been stored just a few hundred yards away from the Columbia River, a major source of drinking water for the Pacific Northwest. According to the PSR, some 200 square miles of groundwater beneath the site is contaminated, with almost half of that area contaminated above drinking water standards. Cleanup at the site began in the late 1980s; even if everything goes perfectly — and as witnessed by the recent tunnel collapse there, that is hardly a given — the task could take until the 2060s to complete.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.