Sustainability, Nuclear Waste, and the Hanford Site

John VanLeer, Cascadia Community College, Bothell, Washington
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This activity is an introduction to the Hanford Site in Washington, including its history, geology, and hydrology, and examines the sustainability issues associated with it. It is intended for an introductory class in geology, geography, or environmental science, but could be used in many other courses, particularly those with an interdisciplinary approach, since it also involves issues of history, politics, and social justice.

The activity has five parts which can be taught in sequence. However, it is designed so that each part can be taught alone, depending on the course, time available, and the outcomes expected by the individual teacher. Briefly, the parts include: 1) location and bioregional setting; 2) human history of the Hanford site (for context); 3) geology and natural history of the site; 4) the nature of radioactive materials and decay; and 5) hydrogeology and contaminant migration. There is also a recommendation for a follow-up activity which could be assigned as a project.

Context for Use

The following activities are intended to introduce aspects of the Hanford Site and notions of radioactive decay within the larger context of sustainability. Although a capstone project is suggested at the end, some my choose not to do all the activities or the capstone. As such, it is encouraged that instructors engage students in notions of sustainability as they complete whatever activities are assigned.

Description and Teaching Materials

Part 1: Location and Bioregional Context of the Hanford Site

Note: For this activity, students will use Google Earth, and thus will need computers with Google Earth installed. The activity can be completed individually, but perhaps best in pairs.

The outcome for part one is that students will use Google Earth to locate the Hanford Reservation, determine its areal size, and spatially analyze its location with respect to its surroundings. From this students will gain an understanding of 1) its location within washonggton, specifically that it is somewhat remote (especially in the 1940's) and isolated; 2) the vastnass of the site; and 3) its proximity to the Columbia River, the Grand Coulee Dam, and large swaths of farmland.

The procedure and assessment items can be found in the following Word document:

Location and Bioregional Context of the Hanford Site (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Jan26 12)

Part 2: Human History

This will be an activity using the Hanford web page and the history pre, during, and post operation.

The procedure and assessment items can be found in the following Word document:

Part 2 Hanford History (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB May31 12)

Part 3: Geology and Natural History

In this section students will use a geolgoic map to identify the various formations and landforms associated with the site. In addition, there will be borehole data that will be used to create a cross section, and an analysis of the ages of the associated rocks. An important component will be a qualitative look at how the landscape sustained itself prior to human alteration.

The procedure and assessment items can be found in the following Word document:

Part 3 Geology (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 1.2MB May31 12)

Hanford Geologic Map:

Stratigraphy Hanford Site: Hanford Stratigraphy (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 1.2MB Jan26 12)

Part 4: Nature of Radioactive Materials and Decay

In order for students to truly comprehend the nature of clean-up and future stewardship of a site like Hanford, a fundamental understanding that radioactive materials only become toxicologically "safe" when they are isolated from the natural world for long periods of time. Science behind this, as well as the idea of peristence through geologic time is probably best achieved by imparting a basic understanding of half-live and decay.

The following online activity should a follow an introduction by the teacher of the following topics:

  1. Atoms and isotopes
  2. The nature of radiocative decay (particularly logarithms)
  3. Radiation (i.e. alpha, beta, gamma, neutron)

To complete the activity, the above topics need only be introduced, and depending on the class, students may already have prior knowledge of them. Assessing this section could be as simple as having students write a paragraph explaining what they learned folowing the lesson, or perhaps a short quiz. If you are moving on to the remaining section, the assessment could be tied to that activity.

Here is the link to the online activity. It is applet-driven, and therefore interactive. It can be completed individually or in pairs.

Part 5: Hydrogeology and Contaminant Migration

In this section, students will use prepared groundwater contour and contamination isoconcentration maps to assess how contamintation flows on the Hanford site and what adjacent resources or other sensitive areas are in jeopardy of receiving that contamination.

The maps were extracted from the following document:

Summary Report for the Hanford Site Groundwater Monitoring and Performance Report for 2010


The procedure and assessment items can be found in the following Word document:

Part 5 Hanford Groundwater (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB May31 12)


Embedded in these five activities is the notion of the sustainability of nuclear activities and its impact on natural resources and humans. If you choose, a capstone activity that focuses students on notions of sustainability and nuclear activity could cement this relationship for them. Of particular interest is the notion of sustainability over time scales. Human, geologic, and radioactive times scales all tie to the sustainability "big idea" that we look to the future when considering our current activities.

This final activity could be a paper, a presentation, a seminar, or simply a small or large group conversation that encourages students to engage in such thinking.

Teaching Notes and Tips


In this series of activities, the assessment and the activity are fully integrated. No further assessments have been included.