Atomic Deserts A Survey of the World's Radioactive No-Go Zones

The Soviet nuclear testing site in present-day Kazakhstan is just one of many places in the world that remain dangerously radioactive to this day.

The Soviet nuclear testing site in present-day Kazakhstan is just one of many places in the world that remain dangerously radioactive to this day.

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Part 7: A Deadly Legacy


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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.

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