Hanford Site


In 1943, the US government selected a site in eastern Washington state to serve as the plutonium production site for the Manhattan Project. This location - the Hanford Site - sat on the lands of the Wanapum Tribe, Nez Perce, the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. With the US government’s decision to occupy this land, they forced the removal of both American Indian and non-Indian residents. The US government gave residents around a few months to relocate themselves. Residents were provided compensation for their relocation. However, often properties were greatly undervalued and the compensation was greatly insufficient.[1]  The Wanapum Tribe, Nez Perce, the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation tribal governments were not offered relocation compensation despite their forced relocation to Priest Rapids, 40 miles northwest.[2] Throughout the project, Tribal members were granted minimal access to their homelands.

During the cold war, Hanford constructed additional reactors, including the N Reactor, along the Columbia River to produced plutonium for atomic weapons development. In the 1960s, older reactors began to be shut down. The N Reactor operated until 1987 producing plutonuim and electricity.[2]  Since then, the Hanford site has become known as one of the most radioactively contaminated sites in the United States. Efforts to remediate the contamination are ongoing. To this day, the Hanford site remains off limits to the public, with the exception of scheduled tour groups, including the tribal nations who were forced off their homelands.[4] Russel Jim, tribal citizen and head of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program, says of the Hanford site that "the area was an isolated wasteland, and the people were expendable." He continues, bringing attention to the reality that “the Yakama people and many others are suffering the consequences health-wise.”[4] 

At the Hanford site, hazardous chemicals and radioactive material contaminates the land, water, and groundwater. Hanford produced millions of tons of solid waste and hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste, much of which was released or spilled into the environment. Extensive environmental cleanup and remediation has been going on since 19XX and is ongoing and expected to continue for decades. Cleanup thus far has cost $40 billion. Cleanup teams are currently searching for a solution to preventing underground "plumes" (rivers) of contamination from flowing into the Columbia River.[3][5] 

Residents are frustrated by the slow pace of environmental remediation at Hanford. They explain that  explains that completed remediation efforts are the "low-hanging fruit" and that Hanford could (and should) be doing a better job to cleanup contamination and keep residents safe and healthy.[5] 

The United States Department of Energy's Tribal Program at the Hanford site states that:

DOE interacts and consults with three federally recognized tribes affected by Hanford operations including the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nationthe Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Nez Perce Tribe. Those Tribes were found “affected” through application under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982) based on the potential affects to treaty rights and resources. In addition, the Wanapum People who still live near Hanford at Priest Rapids, are a non-federally recognized tribe who have strong cultural ties to the site and have consulted with DOE since its formation in the 1940s.[6] 

The DOE's Tribal Program appropriately acknowledges the government to government relationship with tribal nations and acknowledges the "trust responsibility of the United States to protect tribal sovereignty and self-determination, tribal lands, assets, resources, and treaty and other federally recognized and reserved rights." However, tribal citizens and governments impacted by Hanford do not feel as though DOE has honored these treaty obligations. In 2004, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Department of Energy over the environmental contamination and injustice at the Hanford Site.[7] 


[1] "Civilian Displacement: Hanford, WA" Atomic Heritage Foundation (2017), https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/civilian-displacement-hanford-wa.

[2] "Hanford History," United States Department of Energy (2020), https://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/HanfordHistory.

[3] "About Hanford Cleanup," United States Department of Energy, https://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/AboutHanfordCleanup.

[4] "Native Americans and the Manhattan Project," Atomic Heritage Foundation, https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/native-americans-and-manhattan-p….

[5] Taylor Kate Brown, "25 years on at America's most contaminated nuclear waste site," BBC News (2014), https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26658719.

[6] "Department of Energy's Tribal Program," United States Department of Energy, https://www.hanford.gov/page.cfm/INP.

[7] "Umatilla tribes say they'll sue over environment at Hanford," SeattlePi (2004), https://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/Umatilla-tribes-say-they-ll-sue….

Related Stories:
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Yakama Nation to sue over failed waste cleanup 
Editorial: Tribes should win on waste suit 
More nuclear cleanup funds promised 
Radiation exposure believed underestimated
DOE budget: Pueblo cleanup, Indian funds cut 
Tribe seeks better nuclear cleanup 
DOE says nuclear cleanup ahead 
More waste cited at nuclear site  
Report: DOE wasting cleanup money 
DOE revises tribal policies 


Resource Documents

Native American Perspectives on Hanford

This webpage, from the Atomic Heritage Foundation, features two short videos on the experiences of tribal communities as a result of the Hanford Site. The first video, "Living in Harmony" features Russell Jim (Yakama Nation) talking about the how the land siezure for the Hanford site impacted his tribal nation. The second video, "Native…

Rex Buck (Wanapum) Interview 2003

Rex Buck is a member of the Wanapum Indian tribe. He grew up near the Manhattan Project site at Hanford along the Columbia River. In this interview, Buck discusses Wanapum connection to the land and how being forced off their homelands impacted their tribe.  

A video and transcript from the interview are available…

Russell Jim (Yakama Nation) Interview 2003

Russell Jim is a Yakama tribal citizen and head of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program. This interview with Jim discusses how the Yakama Nation was impacted by the Manhattan Project at the Hanford Site, especially the environmental and public health impacts…