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00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d430000The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington was home to Native Americans and later to settlers. It turned into an top-secret military workhorse during World War II and the Cold War. Now, it’s one of the most pressing and complex environmental cleanup challenges humanity is facing in the world.This remote area in southeast Washington is where the federal government made plutonium for bombs during WWII and the Cold War. It’s now home to some of the most toxic contamination on earth, a witch’s brew of chemicals, radioactive waste and defunct structures. In central Hanford, leaking underground tanks full of radioactive sludge await a permanent solution. Meanwhile, a massive $12 billion waste treatment plant, designed to bind up that tank waste into more stable glass logs, has a troubled history.00000179-65ef-d8e2-a9ff-f5ef8d440000Anna King is public radio's correspondent in Richland, Washington, covering the seemingly endless complexities of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Plutonium Escapes From Hanford Nuclear Site

U.S. Department of Energy
The plutonium finishing plant at Hanford in southeast Washington state.

Federal officials are conducting an investigation after plutonium escaped off the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state. The plutonium is left over from a Cold War era factory at Hanford where plutonium was processed from a liquid into a solid form for bombs.

The U.S. Department of Energy says all contaminated worker equipment has been traced and is not a danger to the public. The search began Monday and has spanned as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The plutonium problem is with air coolers about the size of a shoebox that are worn by Hanford workers to make their protective suits more comfortable. Twenty-one contaminated coolers were found, most at a Hanford fire station and two in the trunk of salesman’s car in Kennewick, Washington.

The areas have been screened for contamination and workers at these locations have been offered voluntary testing of their bodies.

Some other units had been shipped to factories in Cincinnati and then Pittsburgh for mechanical failures. None of those was found to have plutonium on them.

The plutonium contamination is from a massive building called the Plutonium Finishing Plant or “Z Plant” locally. Workers have been doing high-hazard jobs gutting the insides of the Cold War factory and demolishing parts of it over the last several years.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.