Glenna Cole Allee: Hanford Reach


In the Atomic Field 



Hanford Reach is a place as paradoxical as it is spectacular. When I first ventured there, I never expected to return in every season with cameras and canteens, and never imagined that the Reach would visit me, appearing in my dreamscapes. But it became a place I’d revisit to walk and reflect on questions that emerged photographing and recording oral histories in the landscapes encircling Hanford nuclear reservation.

The terrain called Hanford Reach was fenced, guarded, and closed to public access for four decades as a nuclear buffer zone, then reopened as a national monument and wildlife refuge in the year 2000. The name "Hanford Reach" is also worn by the span of the Columbia River that sweeps through this monument on its winding course across the sagebrush steppe of eastern Washington State rolling south, then west toward the Pacific.

Across the Columbia from the wildlife refuge lies the Hanford site, often referred to simply as "the Area." The vast region encompasses a decommissioned nuclear reactor reimagined as a museum; multiple nuclear reactors in various stages of demolition, entombment, preservation, and active production; abandoned pioneer townships and orchards; and Native American sacred ancestral grounds.

I first discovered that I was living downstream from Hanford while driving home from Portland, Oregon to New York City in the mid 1980s. Perusing road maps, I realized there were multiple nuclear reactors along the Washington State side of the vast curving Columbia River, to the north of I-80 East. This was the pre-Chernobyl era; one of the original reactors and a processing plant were still active, and one newly designed nuclear power generator had just come online. I became fascinated by this portentous place, and by the apprehension that many people in Portland seemed unaware of its proximity though the city lay directly downriver.

At the height of operations there were nine nuclear reactors at work at Hanford; the lion’s share of the US nuclear arsenal was sourced from the site. Hanford produced plutonium for the Trinity Test conducted at Alamogordo, and for the Fat Man bomb dropped upon the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Plutonium production continued on the reservation through four decades of the Cold War.

Wh­en the federal government designated the region to the Manhattan Project in 1943, native tribes, pioneer descendant farmers, and residents of local townships were given weeks and sometimes days to leave. Some were hired to work on the government project. Some are still living in the communities that border their former farms, now confined within the bounds of the nuclear territories.

The native Wanapum, displaced from lands they had long shared with a network of local tribes, were again dispossessed in 1958 when the federal government dammed the Columbia upriver from Hanford at Priest Rapids, flooding their sacred sites. The Wanapum returned and obtained rights to remain by their ancestral grounds, now submerged eighty feet beneath the river's surface.

More than fifty thousand workers were recruited for construction of the site. Scientists and engineers were cherry-picked from institutions across the nation. In the new communities in the "Tri-Cities" of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick, a culture of secrecy prevailed. There was a common project, but it was classified.

The Columbia River borders the northern and eastern edges of the nuclear territory. Beyond the banks of the river stretches a verdant patchwork of canal-irrigated orchards, vineyards, farms, and dairy pastures. Over four decades of active generation, Hanford is estimated to have released at least twice as much radiation as did the Chernobyl disaster. The releases occurred intermittently and in secrecy; some of the emissions were intentional. The public was not informed.The culture of silence and secrecy encoded in wartime endured through the decades, and into the present. Radiation releases from Hanford streamed into the Columbia River and drifted airborne over neighboring farmlands, cities, and across the Pacific Northwest. 

Icons of migration and drift in every Hollywood Western, salsolas (tumbleweeds) have taproots that stretch twenty feet below ground surface, and search out whatever is buried below. For decades radioactive tumbleweeds on the Hanford reservation were tagged, then burned.


I sought out and spent time in conversation with residents of communities surrounding Hanford. I wanted to understand how the nuclear zone is perceived in the farmlands and cities at close range within the site’s radius. There was a range of voices not centered in the historic record, a field of the uncounted. Tribal elders, farmworker advocates, Downwinders, plant workers, whistleblowers and others offered interviews. Their commentaries together with those of Manhatten Project scientists and engineers create a complex weave. The stories related to me often veered in unanticipated directions. The narratives mirrored the landscapes. There was the constant question of what might rest uneasily buried a few feet, or a few inches, beneath the surface. Loss, and denial, seemed inherent in the genetic code of the culture surrounding Hanford, like a double helix spiraling through the stories recounted there.

Atomic Necklace: String of Cameos is an ongoing photographic project that links the contamination of natural landscapes with the harm inflicted, over generations, upon human bodies.

Atomic Necklace: String of Cameos is an ongoing photographic project that links the contamination of natural landscapes with the harm inflicted, over generations, upon human bodies.

Contained within the Hanford nuclear reservation there is a plutonium-contaminated no-go-zone; the half-life of plutonium is estimated to be approximately 24,000 years. Chemical plumes are slowly leaking from the aging steel canisters in Hanford’s “tank farms,” snaking down toward the groundwater and the Columbia River below.

It is unnerving to stand on the White Bluffs of Hanford Reach and gaze across the Columbia into a place partially removed from human access for a length of time that amounts to "forever." In the bleached midday light of the desert, these seem like landscapes-on-loan, ephemeral as an overexposed photograph.

Plutonium Particle (re-photographed from vintage polaroid. Thanks to Hanford History Archive)

Plutonium Particle (re-photographed from vintage polaroid. Thanks to Hanford History Archive)

All of the photographs and transcript excerpts included in the book were sourced from the interdisciplinary art installation Hanford Reach. Full oral history transcripts and work from the Hanford Reach installation can be seen at

The Hanford Reach: In the Atomic Field installation was created with the help of invited collaborators Michael Paulus, videography and Jon Leidecker/Wobbly, sound design. Thanks to Kathleen Flenniken for permission to include her poem “Plume” in the installation.

Glenna Cole Allee

Glenna Cole Allee is an interdisciplinary artist exploring the shifting relationships between place, myth and memory.