Before (left) and after (right) photos of the Hanford site's F Reactor during operations in 1956 and in 2012, when EM and its contractors completed cleanup there. It was the first reactor area at the 586-square-mile Hanford site to be fully remediated.
EM’s HISTORY (1989 – present)
Fifty years of nuclear weapons production and energy research generated millions of gallons of liquid radioactive waste, millions of cubic meters of solid radioactive wastes, thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel and special nuclear material, along with huge quantities of contaminated soil and water.
One of the largest and most diverse and technically complex environmental cleanup operations in the world, the Office of Environmental Management (EM) Program has a mission to complete the safe cleanup of this environmental legacy.
The EM program was created in the late 1980s to clean up the radioactive legacy of the Cold War. As of 2012, EM has reduced the number of contaminated sites from 107 to 17 and since 2009 EM has reduced its active footprint by 688 square miles, from 931 square miles to 243 square miles, demonstrating tremendous success in the accelerated cleanup of the Cold War legacy.
In order to execute its mission, EM has ranked, in priority order, those activities with the greatest risk reduction. Safety remains the utmost priority. EM is committed to its safety principles and will continue to maintain and demand the highest safety performance to protect the workers and the communities where it operates.
EM’s story has roots in a cold morning in December 1989, when workers at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado loaded the last plutonium "trigger" for a nuclear warhead into a tractor trailer bound southeast to the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. No one knew then that the nuclear weapon built with this plutonium trigger would be the last one made in the United States for the foreseeable future. Until then, the production of nuclear weapons had run continuously, beginning during World War II with the startup of the first reactor to produce plutonium for the top-secret Manhattan Project. But growing concerns about safety and environmental problems had caused various parts of the weapons-producing complex to be shut down in the 1980s. These shutdowns, at first expected to be temporary, became permanent when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The nuclear arms race of the Cold War came to a halt for the first time since the invention of the atomic bomb. Quietly, a new era had begun.
Department of Energy (1977-1989)
In 1977, these duties were transferred to the newly created Department of Energy.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Energy Research and Development Administration (1975-1977)
In 1975, the Atomic Energy Commission was replaced by two new federal agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was charged with regulating the civilian uses of atomic energy (mainly commercial nuclear power plants), and the Energy Research and Development Administration, whose duties included the control of the nuclear weapons complex.
THE ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION (1947 – 1975)
The Atomic Energy Act of l946 established the Atomic Energy Commission, to administer and regulate the production and uses of atomic power. The work of the Commission expanded quickly from building a stockpile of nuclear weapons to investigating peaceful uses of atomic energy (such as research on, and the regulation of, the production of electrical power). It also conducted studies on the health and safety hazards of radioactive materials.
In 1975, the Atomic Energy Commission was replaced by two new federal agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was charged with regulating the civilian uses of atomic energy (mainly commercial nuclear power plants), and the Energy Research and Development Administration, whose duties included the control of the nuclear weapons complex. In 1977, these duties were transferred to the newly created Department of Energy.
THE MANHATTAN PROJECT (1939 – 1947)
From its beginning in 1939 with Enrico Fermi's graphite-pile reactor under the bleachers of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago to the fiery explosion of the first atomic bomb near Alamogordo, New Mexico, the Manhattan Project took a little less than 3 years to create a working atomic bomb. During that time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers managed the construction of monumental plants to enrich uranium, three production reactors to make plutonium, and two reprocessing plants to extract plutonium from the reactor fuel. In 1939, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr had argued that building an atomic bomb "can never be done unless you turn the United States into one huge factory." Years later, he told his colleague Edward Teller, "I told you it couldn't be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that."
At its peak, the nuclear weapons complex in the United States consisted of 16 major facilities, including vast reservations of land in the states of Nevada, Tennessee, Idaho, Washington, and South Carolina. In its diversity, the complex ranged from tracts of isolated desert in Nevada, where weapons were tested, to warehouses in downtown New York that once stored uranium. Its national laboratories in New Mexico and California designed weapons with production of various components in Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and Washington.