Radiological hazard is the uncontrolled release of radioactive material that can harm people or damage the environment.


In Washington State, there have been no radiological releases affecting local jurisdictions from any nuclear power generating system.

Commercial nuclear plants began generating power in 1957. The United States has had only one major incident that occurred at the Three Mile Island facility near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979. Other minor incidents have occurred, but these have been infrequent and have caused few off-site consequences.

Since 1943, the United States Department of Energy - Hanford Site (DOE Hanford Site) manufactured nuclear materials for the nation's defense programs. Chemical and radioactive wastes contaminate many areas of the site. Clean up of the Hanford Site is the largest environmental restoration effort in the nation today.

Hazard Identification and Vulnerability Assessment

Washington State areas capable of radiological release are the Energy Northwest's Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant located 14 miles north northwest of Richland, the DOE Hanford Site, military bases, medical and research facilities, private industry, and trucks, trains, aircraft, and vessels transiting the state carrying radiological materials.

Energy Northwest operates the commercial nuclear power plant called Columbia Generating Station near Richland. Effects of an emergency at the plant could range from no radioactive release to a radioactive release that would initiate the evacuation of the general population within an approximate radius of 10 miles of the facility. Sirens, tone alert radios, and local media stations would alert the community. Radioactive materials from a release may enter the human food chain via crops or dairy products out to an approximate radius of 50 miles from the facility. Meteorological conditions can influence the size of the contaminated area.

The DOE Hanford Site includes spent nuclear fuel storage tanks, mixed waste storage tanks, and other nuclear waste. Large quantities of industrial chemicals and wastes are stored and used around the DOE Hanford Site. An incident could lead to a radiological or chemical hazardous material release. Those vulnerable to the effects of an incident include the site employees and people in the Richland and surrounding area. Contamination of people, animals, food producers, food processors, and facilities is possible.

The Washington State Department of Health licenses nearly 400 facilities in the state that use radioactive materials. These are categorized in three major groups: medical, industrial, and laboratory. Hospitals, clinics, laboratories, and research facilities routinely use radiation in the diagnosis and treatment of medical and dental patients. Industrial applications include various flow gauges, research and development facilities, and radiography to non-destructive test welds and castings for flaws. Medical, industrial, and research use of radiological materials similarly dictate the need for local emergency planning.

Local communities and facilities need to be aware of potentially hazardous nuclear and radiological activities. Military bases that receive, ship, and store nuclear materials as follows:

Although great safety precautions are used and the risk is quite low, an accident could occur. Basic local planning is needed to mitigate and respond to potential incidents.

Another aspect that contributes to the hazard is public perception. Even if not exposed to an actual physical threat, many people may panic, believing radiation may have affected them.


The Columbia Generating Station emergency preparedness programs of Energy Northwest, the state, and the surrounding counties:

  • Adams
  • Benton
  • Franklin
  • Grant
  • Walla Walla
  • Yakima

are ready to respond to emergencies. State and county plans are updated annually. These plans meet criteria established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington State, and Federal Emergency Management Agency and are exercised regularly to ensure their effectiveness. The facility, federal, state, and local jurisdictions participate in these exercises and are trained to respond to actual emergencies, if required.

While the probability of a catastrophic hazardous material release is small, the consequences from the radiological and chemical hazardous materials are significant. Emergency management programs provide a tested emergency response capability designed to protect the people around hazardous areas.

Generally, shielding, limited exposure time, and increased distance from the source are the keys to effective mitigation and response.

Tips and Information about Radiological Hazards

  • Radiological Information for Farmers, Food Processors and Distributors
  • Radiological Information for the General Public
  • Food Security/Radiological Emergency Information


© Copyright 2014 Washington Military Department - Emergency Management Division