Fallout! A Radioactive History

Elizabeth Henderson Apr 5, 2011

Hanford Nuclear Reservation
A 560-square-mile tract of land, Hanford, Wa., was taken over by the federal government as part of the Manhattan Project in 1943. By the time production stopped in the 1980s, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation had produced most of the plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Last year, researchers discovered nearly three times the amount of plutonium previously reported at the site. According to Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department official, enough plutonium is buried at the site to create 1,800 Nagasaki-size bombs.

The Windscale site (now known as Sellafield), located on the coast of the Irish Sea in Cumbria, England, was home to Britain’s first two nuclear reactors, the Windscale Piles, which were constructed in 1951 to produce plutonium and other materials for Britain’s nuclear weapons program. On Oct. 10, 1957, a failure to properly control the temperature of one of the nuclear reactors sparked a devastating fire, which caused clouds of radioactive gas to spew into the atmosphere. At the time, it was the world’s biggest nuclear disaster.

Three Mile Island
The partial core meltdown in Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pa., was the most significant accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry. A pump supplying cooling water to the reactor unaccountably “tripped,” or shut down, on March 28, 1979. A chain reaction of equipment failures and operator mistakes followed. Before the damage was brought under control, nearly half of the reactor core had melted. The accident stopped the construction of new nuclear power plants throughout the United States to this day.

The world’s worst nuclear disaster to date occurred on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine when operators botched a safety test, resulting in an explosion and a fire that burned for 10 days. The fallout spread over tens of thousands of miles, driving more than a quarter of a million people permanently from their homes. While the U.N. estimated 4,000 people died as a result of the incident, a 2009 study by the New York Academy of Sciences puts the death toll from 1986 to 2004 at 985,000 worldwide.

Uranium Mining
Mined uranium ore is normally processed by grinding it and then extracting the uranium through chemical leaching. The milling process yields a dry powder consisting of natural uranium, or “yellowcake.” Uranium is extremely toxic and presents serious environmental and health risks. Most of the uranium mining in the United States took place on Native-American reservations throughout Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona and was managed by the Department of Interior. Hundreds of abandoned mines have yet to be cleaned up and continue to contaminate groundwater and poison children.

Nuclear Waste
More than 50 nuclear plants are planned or under construction in a dozen countries, which will create even more nuclear waste. While the United States has chosen a potential site — Yucca Mountain, located 100 miles from Las Vegas — construction has yet to begin. According to a January 2002 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board concluded that the scientific and technical basis for the DOE’s assessment of Yucca Mountain was “weak to moderate.” The Nuclear Information and Resource Service reports that the area is as “seismically active as the California Bay Area,” and that fractures in the rock of Yucca Mountain will allow the release of radioactive gases over time as nuclear waste decays.

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