Expensive Leadership Lessons From Hanford, America’s Most Toxic Place

The Hanford Site during World War 2.

The Hanford Site during World War 2.

Have you ever heard of Hanford? Most people haven’t. But it’s a place leaders would do well to reflect on. It’s rich with leadership lessons and cautionary tales.

The Hanford Site can be found in a remote part of Washington State. It is the secret World War 2 location where our government built the first-ever large nuclear reactor, the main step in making nuclear bombs. Later, demands of the Cold War would turn Handford into a sprawling atomic city unlike anything the world has seen.

Today Hanford is a living ghost town. The place itself is dead. It no longer does what it was designed to do.  It’s purpose is gone. It’s original inhabitants have scattered.

But thousands of people are still at Hanford, cleaning up a radioactive nightmare.  They’ve been cleaning for decades and won’t be done until at least the year 2060 (120 years after the project started). So what can leaders learn from enigmatic place?

Aging nuclear fuel rods stored in water at Hanford.

Aging nuclear fuel rods stored in water at Hanford.

1. Consider the effects of your decisions both for now AND in the future. Hanford was started during the middle of a war. There was a race to build and use the atomic bomb before our enemies did. It was argued that the bomb could end the war early and save thousands of lives. With such noble ends, poisoning a little remote land didn’t seem to matter. But over time, the legacy of this decision would not be viewed so graciously.

As leaders, we make decisions with long-lasting consequences. Think of leaders who over-spent decades ago to build the most stylish and trendy new buildings of their day. Many of those buildings now look hopelessly extravagant and dated . . . perhaps even unwise. If they had only thought about today AND tomorrow perhaps those buildings could have better stood the test of time.

1944 construction of the world's first large-scale plutonium production reactor.

1944 construction of the world’s first large-scale plutonium production reactor.production reactor in the world

2. Decisions reverberate. The decision to create nuclear weapons may have been made with the urgency of war, but the unintended consequences are being felt through decades of peace time. The Cold War followed World War 2. When the government got caught up in building ever increasing numbers of bombs, they simply kept adding reactors at Hanford.  Ultimately 9 reactors would spring up on the site.  They made enough plutonium for nearly all of America’s 60,000 nuclear weapons.

Leaders, once a decision is made at one level, it creates a path for similar decisions in the future. For instance, if you hire a command-and-control style leader, that person will hire others like themselves. They will create structures and policies that will shape and flavor your organization for decades.  Similar long-reverberating decisions include choice of location, market segment and production quality level.

Reactor control room.

Reactor control room.

3. Lack of knowledge creates fear. . . and fear creates opposition.  In the 1980s, the government decided it had all the weapons-grade nuclear material it wanted. It shut down Hanford. Left behind was America’s largest toxic site, with 53,000,000 gallons of high level radioactive waste and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater below. What’s worse is that some of the tanks holding nuclear waste are leaking, and those tanks are threatening to contaminate the hugely important Columbia River. As you can imagine, fear, emotions and opposition surrounding this problem run high throughout the Northwest.

Leaders, part of the problem now is that people didn’t receive information in the past. The government classified many details about Hanford’s operations, only to release them decades later. The truth always gets out. If you are dealing with sensitive subjects, be as forthright as you can be, as early as you can. This prevents fear and reduces the inevitable emotional reactions to that fear.

Tour at Hanford's Reactor B, the world's first large nuclear reactor.

Tour at Hanford’s Reactor B, the world’s first large nuclear reactor.

If you’re planning a trip to Washington State, consider a stop at Hanford. The Western Washington landscape is beautiful, the history is rich and the fodder for reflection is great. The government offers a limited number of tours. If none are available, you can stop by the small-yet-informative museum called the Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology located in Richland, WA.

What leadership lessons have you learned from the actions of our government? Leave a comment below.


Photos: US Government Public Domain