Hanford: Out of Madness, Accidental Brilliance   17 comments

Dawn on the Columbia River, Hanford Reach, Washington.

Recently I spent a night and day at Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington.  You may have heard of Hanford.  It is an enormous piece of semi-arid steppe in the eastern part of the state along the Columbia River used by the U.S. Department of Energy for nuclear purposes.  But we’re not talking energy here.  This is a little story (or travel post if you will) about how an idea of questionable moral foundation accidentally becomes a brilliant idea.

In the early 1940s, during World War II, the Federal Government came to this mostly empty part of Washington with an ultimatum.  They told the residents of the small town of White Bluffs, along with scattered ranchers and farmers in the region that they could support their country’s war effort by leaving their homes within 30 days.  The simple folk of eastern Washington didn’t know it but the Manhattan Project was getting started.

The White Bluffs baseball team before the Federal Government came to town.

The White Bluffs baseball team before the Federal Government came to town.

The Feds were interested in Hanford because it was remote, wide-open and with endless supplies of fresh water.  That last requirement was especially important because their goal was to do what Iran is trying to do more than 70 years later: enrich plutonium to make an atomic bomb.  They also used Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Los Alamos, New Mexico (where the bomb was finally assembled and tested).

But Hanford was by far the largest site.  That’s not because they needed all the space.  Actually the main development would take place in a relatively small area at the center of the nearly 600 square-mile site.  A few nuclear reactors were scattered along nearer the river, close to much-needed water to cool the reactors.  The enrichment took place in the center with plenty of buffer space..just in case.

An early spring morning on the Hanford Reach, Washington.

Nowadays nothing much happens at Hanford.  Intense cleanup efforts have been partially successful, although there are fears of groundwater contamination miles from the site.  But along the Columbia River things are going along quietly as they have been since the U.S. government came here.

This is the longest free-flowing stretch of the Columbia above tide-water.  No farming or ranching has taken place since 1943.  So the quality of the habitat  (what’s called shrub- or bunchgrass-steppe) is exceptional.  And it’s all because of the Manhattan Project, of all things.  Also it didn’t hurt that President Clinton in 2000 protected it as the Hanford Reach National Monument.

The bunchgrass steppe.

The bunchgrass steppe.


By the way, in 1996 the remains of an ancient hunter (Kennewick Man) was found eroding out of the river bank near the Reach.  The native tribes fought with Federal scientists to acquire and re-bury the remains in accordance with the law.  But scientists wanted to study the well-preserved skeleton to learn something about the earliest Americans.  The Feds won in court because it was unclear at that time if he was even related to modern tribes.  His skull indicated different looks.  But in 2015 DNA evidence pointed to the fact that Kennewick Man was most closely related to the native tribes of today.  If the tribes are still interested (which I’m assuming they are), all they need to do is take it back to court and I’m sure the decision will be reversed so that he may be reburied by his descendants.

Walking along the Columbia, Hanford Reach National Monument, WA.

Walking along the Columbia, Hanford Reach National Monument, WA.

There really isn’t too much to see here, but maybe that’s the point.  Much of it is off limits for protection of nesting birds and native vegetation.  You can simply drive along the river, stopping at the few places where there is public access.  Or if you really want to experience it you can float a canoe or kayak down the river.  From White Bluffs viewpoint you can walk or bicycle along a closed section of roadway.  Whatever you do and however long you stay, you’ll enjoy the quiet, wide open spaces.

Hanford Reach with White Bluffs in the distance. Note the retired plutonium reactors left of the river in the background.

Hanford Reach with White Bluffs in the distance. Note the retired plutonium reactors left of the river in the background.

What started off as a place to plan and build a device that would kill 200,000 people in Japan, a place that began the age when humans are able to destroy large parts of the planet, is now a windswept and pristine grassland, where a river that is largely dammed and tamed gets to just be itself.  That’s what I call a beautiful accident.  Or you could say “every dark cloud has a silver lining”.  Thanks for reading!

At riverside, Hanford Reach, Washington.

At riverside: Hanford Reach, Washington.

17 responses to “Hanford: Out of Madness, Accidental Brilliance

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  1. Your landscape photos are amazing!

  2. Correction: It is illegal to camp anywhere along the river that runs through the Hanford Reach National Monument.

    • I didn’t know that. I thought it was just the DOE side (which is the south you’re right). That’s’ too bad you can’t get a permit to camp on a canoe trip. Thanks for the correction.

  3. A great story that brings the images to life.

    • Thanks Murray! Please see the corrections, especially wrt Kennewick Man.

      • Yes, that’s interesting about Kennewick Man. The original theory as I encountered it was that he was proto-Caucasian and different from the Amerindians. So if the local tribes of today are his descendents, does that mean he was really Amerindian, or that the local tribes are proto-Caucasian and differ from other tribes who are Amerindians, or that the local tribes are Amerindians but also have some proto-Caucasian heritage, or that all tribes are Amerindian with some proto-Caucasian heritage?

        • I’m not sure Murray. I assume the genetic study was able to distinguish enough between the different groups to make real comparisons. I think Native American DNA is fairly distinctive. Of course that doesn’t mean there wasn’t mixing going on. I’ve long believed there were multiple migrations using both the sea and land routes, and probably emanating from different source populations. But the supposition that Kennewick Man was most closely related to the Ainu or Polynesians to me never had any hard evidence behind it. It was certainly an intriguing speculation, and worth testing. It was obviously used by the scientists as a sort of red herring, in order to win in court. I feel it was good that they got the chance to study him, but I don’t like that it took them so long, and I don’t like that he is not being immediately returned based on the new evidence. I think there may be some old-school scientists associated with it who discount modern genetic studies. I also think there may be unprofessional and spiteful hard feelings on the part of people in the Army Corps and maybe also in the Burke Museum (where he’s held).

      • On a similar note, I read a few days ago that Australian Aboriginals were found to have a higher proportion of Denisovan genes than other ethnic groups.

        • That’s fascinating. We know they migrated early on to east Asia. There is the assumption that only humans could have made the water crossing. But that’s a classic case of parochial bias.

  4. Great post 🙂 Nature always finds a way, especially if people are kept from interfering!

  5. A beautiful piece about a most unique landscape. Thanks for the view. M 🙂

  6. Two corrections:
    1) to my knowledge Kennewick Man has yet to be returned to the Tribes. I don’t believe the courts have reversed their decision awarding Kennewick Man to the scientists. Eventually Kennewick Man will probably go to the Tribes for repatriation.

    2) it is illegal to camp anywhere along the Hanford Reach Natl Monument on land managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, along the north side of the river. The south side of the river is also closed to camping as well as any public access since it is on the DOE Hanford Site.

    • Yes the more serious error I made was about the Kennewick Man currently. The genetic evidence is very likely to overturn what was (to my mind) rather arbitrary judgments made based upon his appearance. We all know how unusual some people can look, even among very homogenous populations. But the genetics is real science, so if the tribes are still interested they’ll get him. If the scientists need him for more than 10 years I don’t know what to say except they are SLOW! And anyway, they’ll lose in court. The law is the law.

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