RELEASES: Overview

IN MY OPINION, it is clear from the documents that Hanford officials were concerned that the radiation releases might cause harm to people living in and around the reservation. They set safety limits but routinely exceeded those limits in order to attain their production requirements for the U.S. weapons arsenal. Production, not health and safety, was the first priority." [1]

—from a report titled, Hanford Radiation Releases: A Report for the Hanford Team, 1988

Formally classified DOE documents have disclosed that beginning in 1944, Hanford spewed more than 140 million curies of radiation into the air, soil, and water in and around the Hanford site. [2] A total of 237 various radionuclides have been documented to have been released into the air and water at Hanford; 71 radionuclides into the Columbia River and 166 radionuclides released into the area's atmosphere. [3] The releases resulted from routine operations and the occasional industrial accident. Others were intentional—including as the infamous 1949 Green Run atmospheric release experiment initiated by the Department of Defense and carried out by the General Electric, the federal contractor at the time. Claiming that National Security interests were at risk, Hanford officials chose not to inform workers and area residents of releases or any potential danger resulting from them even though emissions sometimes far exceeded those deemed scientifically tolerable for human health. According to the Washington State Department of Health it is estimated that nearly two million people were exposed to radiation through atmospheric releases or through Columbia River water from 1944 to 1972.

Although Hanford scientists and officials were early on well aware of potential risks that radiation exposure posed to humans and the environment alike they continued "on numerous occasions throughout the first four decades of operation, [to] specifically tell the public that the plant's workings and wastes were controlled and harmless." [4] In 1989, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee released a report stating that in the early years of atomic production "high level...Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) officials were made aware of serious public health problems stemming from exposure to...radioactive particles and gasses emanating from AEC facilities and overexposure of uranium process workers." According to the committee chairman, Senator and former astronaut, John Glenn the AEC had "done nothing...and swept the problem under the carpet." [5]

This chapter details three types of radioactive releases found at Hanford and explains health and safety implications arising from these releases on both humans and the environment.