Hanford, Cold War forever linked: Site's defense mission continued long after the end of World War II

October 28, 2009 

The Hanford site was quite simply a "battlefield of the Cold War," America's most prolific arsenal of plutonium defense materials for 40 of the 44 years (1947-1991) that most historians delineate as the Cold War.

The Cold War was the longest war that ever engaged the United States, and the most expensive in terms of dollars. In addition, its cost in human health was not insignificant. Producing materials for the Cold War helped change nearly every aspect of American society from where Americans lived, to whether wives worked, to the nature of communities. Perhaps nowhere else in the United States did the Cold War come home in the lives of employees and communities as dramatically as it did at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities.

Beginning of the Cold War

The hectic World War II years at the Hanford Engineer Works (the WWII name for the Hanford site) were followed by a production lull and period of uncertainty. Many at HEW and in the region thought the facilities would be dismantled and the pre-war plan for the land to become part of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project (CBIP) would be implemented. HEW's operations work force fell by half - from 10,000 to 5,000 - between war's end and December 1946.

Perhaps some HEW workers saw the Cold War coming when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill journeyed to Fulton, Mo., in March 1946 and stated that "an iron curtain has descended across the continent" of Europe. A "dark shadow" of "tyranny" was being cast, he said, by an expansionist Soviet Union. In March 1947, Hanford workers, now employed by a contractor working for the new Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) sensed a renewed urgency in their work when President Harry Truman "declared" the Cold War in the Truman Doctrine. Our nation would give not only economic, but also military aid, he said, to countries struggling against Soviet destabilization and domination.

However, workers and residents didn't know for sure that their world would change until the Richland Villager newspaper announced in blazing headlines on Aug. 14 of that year: "Village faces Boom with Plant Expansion." The "enlargement," as it was known, would soon become so huge it required a new trailer city to be built north of Richland, where part of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory campus sits today.

Hanford's first Cold War expansion

The expansion became the largest peacetime construction project in U.S. history to date, and cost more money than had the original construction of HEW. It temporarily shut down construction of the South District (Franklin and parts of Grant counties) portion of the CBIP, since available workers, materials and space could not be found. Even permanent anti-aircraft defense facilities planned for HW could not be deployed due to lack of housing and other facilities.

The AEC directed General Electric Co.'s Hanford subsidiary, known as Hanford Atomic Products Operation, to build two more nuclear reactors along the Columbia's shore. By 1949, H and DR reactors, nearly clones of the WWII B, D and F reactors, were operating. At the vast site now known simply as Hanford Works, HAPO also built the Plutonium Finishing Plant, allowing the site to complete the final production step of hardening purified liquid solutions into plutonium metal. Forty-two additional underground waste storage tanks were built, bringing the HW total to 106 by 1949 - more than double the number that any other U.S. defense site has even today.

By 1948, the "North Richland" trailer village housed 25,000 people. The government-owned city of Richland, home to HW operations workers, grew by 10,000 people, and the Uptown Shopping Plaza was built to accommodate their needs. Local school districts outside Richland pleaded with the AEC for assistance due to overcrowding, and in 1948 six districts received such aid. The expansion jump-started the local economy, as the pattern now known as "boom-bust" looped its first full cycle through the Tri-Cities. Taxable retail sales in Benton and Franklin counties grew by more than 50 percent in one year.

Hanford's second Cold War expansion

No sooner had the turbulent expansion begun to slow in August 1949, when shocking international events again changed Hanford's course. The Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, sending a telltale spike in airborne radiation across the jet stream from Kazakhstan to the air monitors at HW. Hanford personnel discovered the high airborne readings and rushed to comb their facilities for leaks.

Straight as the arrow flies, more defense work came to HW. HAPO was directed to speed development of a new chemical separations process known as reduction-oxidation (REDOX), and to build a giant plant to deploy it. Six large new laboratories and a machine shop were built in the 300 Area, which became known as the "Tech Center." The labs, most of which opened in 1952, worked on practical ways to increase plutonium production. Eighteen more waste tanks were constructed, along with two waste evaporators because tank space was always scarce. The unused 224-U building was converted to the Uranium Trioxide (UO3) Plant, and a uranium recovery mission was placed in the U "canyon" (chemical separations facility).

HW was seen as so vital to national security that 3,000 men in three anti-aircraft battalions were deployed full time to the new post of Camp Hanford in March 1950. They established a base administration area near the North Richland trailer park and 16 forward positions on the Hanford site.

More wrenching developments came in 1950, adding impetus to the expansion. In June, the Korean War began, and in late fall the Chinese Communist government sent troops into the fight. In addition to military engagement, the United States responded by directing HW to build C reactor. HAPO broke ground on Hanford's sixth reactor in January 1951, and the machine began operating in November 1952.

Indeed, the three years following the first Soviet atomic bomb and the start of the Korean War saw the largest overall period of expansion in U.S. nuclear history. Much of the current complex of sites and facilities managed by the Department of Energy (a successor to the AEC) was begun during these seminal years.

In Richland, the last of the "alphabet houses" were built under government contracts, as the HW operations work force reached 10,000 for the first time since WWII. The payroll climbed to $32 million, and the AEC decided to begin the process of "emancipating" the city from federal control, as the everyday tasks of housing workers and providing every service from medical care to changing light bulbs became overwhelming. The AEC also provided additional aid for permanent new facilities for seven school districts surrounding Richland.

Hanford's third Cold War expansion

The election of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower as president in November 1952 brought the third postwar expansion to HW - a period of growth that rolled so seamlessly from the second expansion that the distinction is perhaps only important to historians. To residents and workers, it felt the same, and some have described the period as a "non-stop fire drill."

The new president soon forced an end to the Korean stalemate on a policy of "massive retaliation," by threatening to deploy nuclear weapons. He believed in deterrence - building massive production capacity and then letting the world know it existed - but he also believed in using force when necessary.

In "Program X," the first major initiative of his presidency, he ordered two giant reactors and the PUREX (plutonium-uranium extraction) plant to be built at HW. The K East (KE) and K West (KW) reactors were known as the "jumbos" because they were 50 percent larger than the WWII reactors, but their production capacity was more than sevenfold. PUREX's capacity was nearly seven times that of the WWII chemical separations facilities. With these three new facilities, Eisenhower nearly doubled Hanford's ability to make weapons materials. HAPO also added 21 more waste tanks to support the production. By 1954, federal investments at Hanford totaled about $1 billion (nearly $10 billion in today's dollars), and the HW payroll stood at $55 million.

Workhorse of the Cold War

Hanford's peak years of production, 1956-63, followed the three rapid expansions. Production statistics show a steep climb - an eightfold increase in the eight years from 1951-58. Increases continued to the peak production year of 1961, as new President John F. Kennedy pledged to "close the missile gap."

In response to the Soviets launching the world's first satellite, Sputnik, the massive N Reactor was constructed at HW. The eight older production reactors were refitted with new pumps, instruments and electrical systems, allowing them to vastly increase their power levels. At the oldest reactors, power levels increased more than eightfold. The mighty PUREX quadrupled its production rate between its 1956 startup and 1960. By October 1960, PUREX had surpassed the combined output of Hanford's other three chemical separations plants over the previous 15 years.

The site also supported Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program with experiments aimed at electric power development. By 1960, 40 percent of Benton County's work force was employed at Hanford, and the payroll reached $62 million.

The biggest change in community life came in December 1958, when Richland was emancipated from federal ownership. A large "commencement" celebration was held, in which a fake "atomic bomb" (made of ordinary explosives and pyrotechnics) was set off. Unfortunately, its power outran expectations and it blew out several windows in the Uptown Plaza. Families and businesses occupying homes and commercial buildings in Richland were given first rights to buy the properties they had been renting from the government. Elections were held, a city government organized, and HAPO withdrew from the business of managing housing allocations, seeding lawns and operating Kadlec Hospital.

Regional development boomed, as five power-generating dams were constructed along the Snake and Columbia rivers within 65 miles of the Tri-Cities, the CBIP South District farm tracts were populated, the "Big Pasco" facilities were purchased from the federal government by the Port of Pasco, and the Boise Cascade paper mill opened at Wallula. In 1961, the AEC began a policy of encouraging regional development near its sites by awarding more than 40 percent of its contracts to small businesses. By 1962, the population of Benton and Franklin counties reached 100,000, with 54,000 living in the Tri-Cities.

Environmental monitoring

As soon as it was established in WWII, HEW began an extensive program to monitor site vegetation, animals, air, surface water, ground water and workers. A large "Health Instruments" (H.I.) division worked to track the environmental impacts of the site's unique operations, and soon it was sampling up to 150 miles into the surrounding area.

Monitoring continued and grew with each production expansion. During the Cold War, HW served as a tracking station for airborne fallout generated by atomic bomb tests around the world, and operated a large animal farm in the 100-F Area to test the effects of ingested, inhaled and absorbed radioactivity. Fish monitoring tanks operated there from 1944-70, when scaled-back radiobiological experiments moved to a building in the 300 Area. When PNNL began its role at HW in 1965, it assumed the monitoring work scope.

Diversification

Early warnings in 1963 that Congress wanted to cut plutonium production prompted several prominent Tri-Citians to form the Tri-Cities Nuclear Industrial Council (TRICNIC) to work with the AEC and others to diversify the local economy. The assassination of President Kennedy later that year accelerated change, as new President Lyndon Johnson pushed a stronger domestic agenda and took the Cold War in a new direction. Johnson announced major cutbacks at Hanford in his State of the Union address in January 1964, and began closing HW reactors later that year. All except N Reactor closed by 1971, while N turned to electric power production. Johnson also ceased key functions at the PFP and other Hanford facilities.

The AEC decided to rebid the Hanford contract in 1964, splitting site functions among seven separate contractors. TRICNIC worked with the AEC to add clauses to the requests for proposals mandating that each new contractor establish at least one new business not related to Hanford in the region, and contribute to a Joint Center for Graduate Studies that would substitute for a university in the Tri-Cities. The new contracts were phased in from 1965-67. All but one of the seven new contractors fulfilled its obligation to create a new business within two years. The seventh was replaced.

In addition to off-site diversification pursuits, the HW contractors also worked to diversify their on-site work away from defense production. A creative period of experimentation in purifying isotopes for the nation's space program, as well as separating and creating "designer oxides" for federal and commercial experiments for nuclear power plant fuels, ensued. Two of the largest Hanford programs in non-defense work were constructing the Fast Flux Test Facility and refitting B Plant for a mission to recover and package cesium-137 and strontium-90 for industrial and medical uses.

Richland annexed land to the north, south and west, and the Port of Benton acquired the Richland Industrial Park along the Columbia and the Richland Airport for economic development. Plans began to build the "Three Rivers Shopping Mall" (now the Columbia Center Mall) and many other retail stores.

In 1972, the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) broke ground on the first of three planned power-producing reactors north of the Tri-Cities, fueling a boom not seen since the hectic post-war defense expansions. Tri-Cities construction permits rose by 71 percent from 1973 to 1974, and retail sales in Benton and Franklin counties rose by 35 percent in 1974 alone. Hanford was still the dominant employer, however, peaking at 12,700 in 1977. The Tri-City Herald stated in 1976: "Diversification has placed this region's future in the economically secure fields of agriculture and energy."

Environmental upgrades

As diversification projects grew, so did the nation's environmental awareness. The landmark passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 was just one of many forces that prompted the AEC, although exempt from the law, to take a series of actions to protect the environment. The agency funded substantial waste-handling upgrades at each of its HW facilities. PUREX, PFP and its attached Plutonium Reclamation Facility shut down to install new waste routing systems, ventilation, fire suppression and seismic improvements. PUREX remained closed for 11 years. The site built more underground waste storage tanks, now double-shelled (or double-hulled). Two new waste evaporators were built near the REDOX and PUREX plants in the early 1970s.

The Basalt Waste Isolation Project (BWIP) broke ground at Hanford in 1976, conducting tests aimed at siting a safe and isolated repository for reactor irradiated fuel and other nuclear byproducts. Experiments in waste vitrification progressed in the Battelle Northwest laboratories.

Reflecting a new federal emphasis on energy research, the AEC was replaced by the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) in 1973. The new agency renamed HW as the Hanford Reservation. In 1977, ERDA was supplanted by DOE, the agency that christened its Washington desert property as the Hanford Site.

The Cold War assumed a much lower profile not focused on defense production.

Doldrums

The decade of environmental upgrades was accompanied by a notable decline in public support for nuclear power. By the 1980s, this concern and economic factors combined to cancel some of the largest projects at Hanford and in the Tri-Cities. In 1983, the U.S. Congress defunded the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project, for which FFTF was the prototype. After that, FFTF was never fully funded and struggled to survive. WPPSS canceled two of three reactor projects on Hanford land in 1982, N Reactor shut down in early 1987 and BWIP was cancelled later that year. The Cold War remained in a low energy state as the Soviet Union struggled through a series of ineffective, octogenarian leaders.

The Reagan buildup

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president on a free-market platform. His philosophy regarding the Cold War was simple: it should end, and the United States (and ultimately capitalism) should win. In March 1983, he announced the far-reaching Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), sometimes called the Star Wars Program. SDI had profound implications for Hanford. Immediately, DOE issued directives to restart the PUREX, PFP, PRF and the UO3 plants, and to turn N Reactor back to weapons grade plutonium production.

Hanford became a beehive of activity, as the old facilities retooled and reactivated in late 1983 and 1984.

The site's work force grew to just over 15,000 by early 1987, and the budget stretched over $900 million. Plutonium production spiked, as the Cold War went "hot" once again.

End of the Cold War

The sprint did not take long. The nearly bankrupt Soviet Union could not afford to match American production and new Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, formerly minister of agriculture, saw starvation ahead. In December 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, effectively ending the arms race.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but the Cold War itself is not said to have ended until the Soviet Union broke into 15 independent republics during 1990-91. Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day 1991, and Soviet government functions essentially ceased Dec. 31. President George H.W. Bush took the American Strategic Air Command bombers off of full-time alert in 1992.

At Hanford, attention turned to waste cleanup, and a whole new era in the site's long history began.

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