A Mixed Legacy: Wildlife and Nuclear Waste
THE HANFORD BEACH, WASH. — People have lived in the area around Hanford Reach for 10,000 years. Native Americans - the Wanapam people and others - fished for salmon here. The remains of ancient pit houses have been found on some of the small islands in the Columbia River.
Not far downriver, the 9,000 year-old remains of Kennewick Man - who some experts say may have been of European ancestry - were discovered two years ago.
In October 1805, the Lewis and Clark party entered the Columbia where the Snake River flows into it just south of Hanford Reach. According to historian Stephen Ambrose, the party spent a couple of days here trading with Indians while William Clark scouted upstream along the Columbia for about 10 miles. Then they pushed downriver for the Pacific.
Later in the century, farmers and ranchers began populating the area. But everything changed radically in 1943 when President Franklin Roosevelt launched the Manhattan Project and sent a group of generals out West to find a spot for building nuclear weapons. Hanford fit the bill. It had plenty of water to cool the reactors; it had abundant electricity from nearby Bonneville Dam; and it was remote enough to be secure against spying or sabotage.
In the middle of a world war and anxious to beat Germany and the Soviet Union in developing the atomic bomb, the US government acted quickly. The residents of the small towns were told they had 60 days to move out. Houses were bulldozed and work began immediately on the first of nine reactors at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Almost overnight, a town site of more than 50,000 people was created in what is today Richland. It was a company town, and the business was supplying weapons-grade plutonium.