A Deadly Legacy
The lion's share of the plutonium used for the US nuclear arsenal during the Cold War came from the Hanford plant on the Columbia River in the US state of Washington. The plutonium used in the first atomic bomb test in July 1945 came from Hanford as did the material used in "Fat Man," the bomb which destroyed Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.
Fifty-two buildings at Hanford remain contaminated to this day, and 240 square miles are uninhabitable due to the radioactivity that has seeped into the soil and ground water: uranium, cesium, strontium, plutonium and other deadly radio-nuclides. Altogether, more than 204,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste remain on site -- two-thirds of the total for the entire US. In one area, discharges of more than 216 million liters of radioactive, liquid waste and cooling water have flowed out of leaky tanks. More than 100,000 spent fuel rods -- 2,300 tons of them -- still sit in leaky basins close to the Columbia River.
The plant is also notorious for the so-called "Green Run" -- the deliberate release of a highly radioactive cloud from the T-plant, the world's largest plutonium factory at the time. The radiation was almost 1,000 times worse than that released during the 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the worst nuclear accident in American history. Fallout from the experiment drifted all the way to California. People wondered why they suddenly got sick. Studies would eventually show that some babies at Hanford were radiated twice as much as the children of Chernobyl.
The First Big Accident
The first large nuclear power plant accident -- and the largest until Chernobyl -- took place at Windscale, now Sellafield, in October 1957. There, by the Irish Sea, the British had hurriedly built two atomic reactors after World War II for power production and to make weapons-grade plutonium.
The speed of construction carried a great cost. In 1955, 251 workers were exposed to radiation during repair work. Then, on Oct. 10 1957, a reactor core began to burn. In an attempt to extinguish the fire, a radioactive cloud was released, followed by a second one the next day. The radiation reached as far as Switzerland. The fires were only brought under control after two days.
The authorities attempted to cover up the accident, initially saying only that there had been an incident, but that the workers involved had been able to scrub away the radiation with soap and water. The only warning was that cow's milk in a radius of 200 miles from the reactor should not be consumed. In reality, the population surrounding the reactor received radiation doses 10 times higher than that seen as permissible for a lifetime.
According to official figures, 33 people were killed by the after-effects of the disaster, with more than 200 diagnosed with thyroid cancer. To this day, 15 tons of damage fuel rods are still stored on site as is radioactive ash and mud, leftover from the fire. The reactor is now to be dismantled using a robot built exclusively for the project. In all, it is set to cost some 500 million pounds.
A Survey of the World's Radioactive No-Go Zones