Tumbleweeds pile up against the fence of the first production reactor built alongside the Columbia River at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in this 1994 photo by Christopher Anderson.

In 1943, the federal government chose Hanford, in Washington state, to make plutonium for the Manhattan Project, a secret wartime effort to build an atomic bomb. That military mission ended in 1988, launching a cleanup effort that continues to this day. In 1994, S-R reporters Karen Dorn Steele and Jim Lynch wrote a five-day series called Wasteland detailing the money spent on Hanford’s cleanup.

In an agreement reached in the early days of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government agreed to indemnify the nuclear contractors making plutonium at Hanford, including corporate giants General Electric and E.I. DuPont de Nemours.

That means U.S. taxpayers have also been paying the legal bills for the Hanford contractors’ defense in lawsuits by “downwinders” who say they were sickened by pollution from the facility – over $60 million so far – as well as any settlements to individual plaintiffs and favorable verdicts in the Hanford case.

Key places

  • B Reactor

    The B Reactor was the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor and produced the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. This World War II-era file photograph taken by the federal government shows the B reactor during its early plutonium production days. It was shut down in 1968 and in 2008 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

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