The shell of a single white-framed building is all that remains of the community of 55,000 people who worked here during World War II to produce plutonium for atomic bombs.
Against a backdrop' of bluffs on the eastern back of the Columbia River, the lone building stands as a monument to the plutonium project, which delivered its first batch into the bomb tested in the New Mexico desert and its second into the bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945 to end the war. All the other buildings were razed when the nearby city of Richland was built to house the people from the plutonium plants. The town of Hanford no longer exists.
A grimmer but less visible reminder of the dawn of the Nuclear Age also exists here. Buried in a maze of underground steel tanks, the wastes of the nuclear and chemical processes that produced the plutonium for the two bombs remain radioactive after all these years.
The wastes of 35 years of plutonium production lying in the ground make the Hanford Reservation the largest nuclear garbage dump in the world. With 12 million gallons of liquid waste and 38 million gallons of slurry, there is more radioactivity under the ground at Hanford than in all the debris that fell out from the 369 nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere in the last 30 years.
Nowhere is the question of what to do with radioactive wastes posed in starker terms. Hanford's nuclear wastes, not only vast but accumulating, are in microcosm what the nation's nuclear wastes will look like in 20 years. At Hanford, to borrow a phrase from former Redskins Coach George Allen, the Future Is Now.
For years, the question of permanent disposal was swept under the rug at Hanford. Programs to turn the waste into glass were begun and stopped. Money to find ways of permanent disposal never reached more than a trickle. Top priority was always production of plutonium.
No longer. The winds of change have finally reached the Hanford Reservation, and they're blowing like the March winds that scatter the tumbleweed along the floor of this eastern Washington desert.
For the first time since the first pound of plutonium was produced here, plans are being hatched to do something with Hanford's radioactive wastes. These plans are critical to any national disposal plan, since whatever is decided on here may well be the plan the nation embraces. Hanford itself might even turn out to be the repository for most if not all of the nation's nuclear garbage.
"The wastes at Hanford are liquid and they're close to the ground," said Roger Le Gassie, associate director for program analysis at the Department of Energy. "We don't want to leave them that way forever."
Basically, two disposal plans are being studied.
One would involve leaving the wastes where they are, but beefing up the burial site to make it essentially permanent. The 149 storage tanks would all be "bermed" - covered with tons of concrete and gravel to entomb the wastes for as long as 600 years.
"Putting gravel and concrete on top guarantees that future winds won't erode the soil cover over the tanks," said Frank Standerfer, assistant manager of the Richland Operations Office that runs the Hanford Reservation. "In other words, a guy couldn't go in there with a shovel and dig up any of the wastes even if he wanted to do it."
The alternative is to dig the waste up and move it, though not necessarily off the Hanford Reservation. Underlying the reservation are layers of baslt, a hard volcanic rock that might make a suitable encasement.
Geologists have already sunk test holes more than half a mile down, and they find evidence that the basaltic lava flows have lain unchanged for 20 million years. This means it should be safe for permanent disposal of just about all the waste accumulating at Hanford.
The National Academy of Sciences suggested last week that Hanford tunnel into the nearby Rattlesnake Hills for suitable disposal grounds.But Hanford engineers worry that burial in the hills won't eliminate the "stumble factor" - someone in the future digging into the burial grounds by mistake. Engineers also worry that the hills won't give them the depth they want for permanent disposal.
"You know, 2,500 feet below the Columbia River is a lot better than a few hundred feet above it," said D.J. Cockeram, vice president and general manager of the Rockwell International Atomics Division that operates Hanford for the Energy Department.
The wastes might be moved away from Handford for burial elsewhere. But transporting them poses fears of an accident or spill. Also, the delicate process of digging them up could take as long as 20 years and cost as much as $4 billion.
The radiation hazard was underlined by the recent disclosures of a University of Pittsburgh health physicist, Thomas F. Mancuso, that atomic workers at Hanford suffered inexplicable cancers at a rate higher than the general public. Mancuso suggested that allowable exposures to radiation might be higher than they should be.
"If the wastes can find their ultimate resting place on this reservation, so much the better," said Hanford's Frank Standerfer."You understand that anything we do on this reservation we do with our own workers, who opt to work here. People off the reservation would be exposed involuntarily; it's something they'd have no control over."
The disposal methods under study also involve changing the form of the wastes. Now, they are in liquids or in solid slurries that could easily be mixed and dissolved in water to become liquids. One proposal would convert at the wastes to glass.
There is good reason for concern about what form to use. Twenty years ago, an underground tank at Hanford leaked liquid radioactive wastes into the soil, and there have been 19 more leaks since. Most of the leaks were stopped at 5,000 gallons, but a few ran as high as 30,000 and one totaled 150,000 gallons.
The "big leak" spread about 75 feet from the sides of the tank and formed a bell-shaped stain about 60 feet below the tank, stopping 116 feet from the water table where an underground river branches away from the Columbia. The engineers at Hanford want to leave the contaiminated soil where it is.
"If we dug it all up we'd have to go and bury it someplace else anyway," Standerfer says. "We're going to leave that stuff her even if we dispose of the rest of the waste. We've pretty much come to the conclusion that contaminated soils, which will essentially be innocuous after a few hundred years anyway, will remain where they are."
Liquid wastes are still stored in about 20 underground tanks of singlewalled steel, the same type of tank that has leaked in the past. A $60 million program now under way at Hanford involves the construction of 12 double-wall tanks (called the "cup-and-saucer") that have never leaked before.
The liquid wastes at Hamford will all be in double-walled tanks by 1980, at which time there could be a permanent repository under construction far below ground at Hanford for all the tanked radioactive waste.
One thing is clear in talking to the experts about permanent radioactive waste disposal. It won't come cheap. The Energy Departments Roger. Le Gassie estimates that the disposal bill for civilian and military wastes by the year 2000 might run as high as $25 billion - what it cost the nation to land men on the moon.