Inheriting Hanford Blog

Plume: On the Emotional Impact of Hanford

plume

“TO CAROLYN’S FATHER

— Thomas Jerry Deen, 1929-1988

On the morning I got plucked out of third grade
by Principal Wellman because I’d written on command
an impassioned letter for the life of our nuclear plants
that the government threatened to shut down
and I put on my rabbit-trimmed green plaid coat
because it was cold and I’d be on the televised news
overseeing delivery of several hundred pounds of mail
onto an airplane bound for Washington DC addressed
to President Nixon who obviously didn’t care about your job
at the same time inside your marrow
blood cells began to err one moment efficient the next
a few gone wrong stunned by exposure to radiation
as you milled uranium into slugs or swabbed down
train cars or reported to B Reactor for a quick run-in-
run-out and by that morning Mr. Deen
the poisoning of your blood had already begun”

—Kathleen Flenniken, Plume

There are many books out there about Hanford. Like the site itself, the books can be complex, arduous reads that take a certain degree of dedication to get through. As someone who is new to Hanford issues, I find learning about the site to be fascinating but a bit of a slog at times because of the immensity of the project and cleanup.

Kathleen Flenniken’s Plume, a Washington State Book Award winner, is an amazing compilation of poems on Hanford that is distinctly different from other Hanford literature. More than any other text I’ve encountered, Plume grapples with the very personal effects felt by the families of Hanford workers. Flenniken herself is a second generation Hanford worker whose father worked at the site in the age of weapon production.

Flenniken’s book also beautifully paints images of the desert landscape of Eastern Washington. Her depictions of the flora and fauna that inhabit the site and surrounding areas make a profound statement about the need to mitigate the impact that Hanford has had on the ecosystem.

If you are looking for a different kind of introduction to Hanford, I highly recommend this amazing book of poetry. It is available here through Amazon.

By: Emily Bays

 

Where is the 300 area again?

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Do you, like me, often feel that your efforts to memorize the many facilities and their respective purposes at Hanford are in vain? I often have moments of frustration when I find myself looking up “100 area” or “ERDF” for the 30th time.

Fortunately for Hanford newbies like myself, there are some great resources out there for frequent referencing on Hanford issues. The Department of Energy’s official Hanford website has what amounts to a dictionary of all the Hanford facilities that I find myself revisiting again and again. If you want to check that link out, it is available here.

Another awesome resource is Phoenix, the PNNL Hanford Online Environmental Information eXchange, which was created and is maintained by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Phoenix is an interactive map of the Hanford Site. You can click to add a number of layers to the map, including plumes, facilities, and tanks. Cross-reference the Phoenix site maps with Hanford.gov facility descriptions and you have a veritable wealth of information for the aspiring Hanford nerd!

If you have found great Hanford resources for quick referencing, post them in the comments!

by: Emily Bays

Difficult Choices

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Post-holiday contemplation can be very fruitful. I’ve been thinking about the “Sophie’s Choices” we are faced with every day regarding Hanford cleanup. I know this is a dramatic statement.  I am not typically given to drama, but after attending a filming last week watching and listening to Ecology, DOE and Bechtel talk about the Waste Treatment Plant currently under construction I was both encouraged and discouraged. The budget numbers are out for 2014. Hanford is being provided with an enormous amount of money for cleanup for both of the Department of Energy field offices; Richland Operations and the Office of River Protection. It feels ungrateful to say it is not enough but it really is not enough. Not enough to meet Tri-Party agreement milestones, not enough to develop preliminary activities to support some future cleanup actions, not enough to move forward on groundwater and vadose zone remediation on the Hanford site and more.

Choices will have to be made. Actually, I think most of those major choices have already been made - directed by the higher-ups located in Washington, D.C. in various and sundry governmental agencies. We keep pushing off a variety of cleanup actions to some date in the future to be paid for by our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren!

All that being said, I am still hopeful that I will be alive to attend the start up ceremony for the Waste Treatment Plant. A safe, successful operating plant to vitrify the 56 million gallons of waste stored in underground tanks is the star we are all reaching for. The number of hardworking, technically astute folks working on that goal of Hanford cleanup is staggering, including those of us volunteering our time and effort in a variety of ways: attending public meetings, volunteering on the Hanford Advisory Board, talking with friends and neighbors about Hanford cleanup, encouraging young people to get educated on Hanford issues…the list goes on and on. Sharing the value of remediating and protecting our water is incredibly important, it is fundamental to survival. Hanford is filled with beautiful animals, incredible plants, Indian cultural resources, historical industrial artifacts, and for me – good memories.

Susan Leckband
Wife, mother, grandmother and former Hanford worker.

Hanford: Inequities & Unheard Voices

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This past fall quarter I was enrolled in a medical anthropology class taught by Holly Barker at the University of Washington.  Throughout the quarter, our class met weekly with our NGO partners, Hanford Challenge and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, to coordinate the details of a public meeting: Hanford: Inequities & Unheard Voices.  During the weeks of planning, our class learned about the geopolitics of today’s nuclear order while also gaining firsthand insights into the complex history of Hanford Nuclear Site.  The meeting provided an excellent platform for us to deepen our knowledge of the issues at Hanford, while also affording us an opportunity to raise awareness by engaging with the public.

The event was catered by the generous contributions of Shalimar Restaurant, Nesbit’s Wholesome Cuisine, Tutta-Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria and Mighty-O Donuts.  The evening began with a few songs from The Raging Grannies, a group of fabulously radical, wise- women elders that advocate for peace, equality and social justice through music.  Following their set, we were fortunate enough to have Washington State’s 2014 Poet Laureate, Kathleen Flenniken, initiate the meeting with a poetry reading from her book, Plume.  The rest of the evening was filled with insights from our keynote speakers: Russell Jim and Leah Aleck of the Yakima Nation; former president of the United Steelworkers Union, Stephanie Greene; Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge; and URS whistleblower, Dr. Walt Tamosaitis.

The highlight of the evening came when two students from our class, Alex and Leslie, joined the guest speakers on stage to field questions from the audience.  This gave the public an opportunity to probe further into their personal concerns.  When the Q&A panel was asked, “How frequently do cover-ups occur at Hanford?” Stephanie Greene replied quickly and resolutely with the answer “daily.”  This question was later followed with, “What would it take for Hanford to truly be considered clean?” Dr. Tamosaitis explained that he did not believe it would ever be “truly clean.”  Russell Jim interjected with his opinion that someday, maybe 500 years from now, it will indeed be clean.  In America’s Nuclear Wastelands: Politics, Accountability, and Cleanup (2008) author Max Power states that, “accountability, openness and public trust” (153) are necessary precursors for a successful cleanup.  As Russell Jim’s statement revealed, many people feel that accepting a lower standard prioritizes cost at the expense of public health and worker safety.

The evening ended on a high note with Washington Rep. Gerry Pollet accepting a signed Student Proclamation of the actions from the DOE desired by students in the clean up effort.  Rep. Pollet not only accepted the proclamation, but he invited the class to join him in presenting it to legislators this January in Olympia.

raginggranniesI felt this was a major success for the class as it takes a stab at affecting policy change head-on.  Over the course of the quarter there were three key approaches presented for implementing change in the cleanup that stood out to me.  The most fundamental approach is raising awareness through meetings, art and storytelling.  The second approach was illustrated in our exchange with Representative Pollet and it involves addressing the government directly by requesting policy change.  The third approach is a hybrid of the two, first brought to my attention by Laurie of The Raging Grannies.  When I asked her what she felt was the most effective approach to demanding action from the DOE at Hanford, she replied firmly with “civil disobedience.”   Indeed, if the cleanup doesn’t start heading in a new direction soon, civil disobedience might be a path of action for citizens to take.

by: Tiffany Smith

Faith and Hanford

The Hanford Reach

I have the privilege of hearing the nuclear news pretty regularly because I live with Emily, who works at Hanford Challenge. It’s strange sometimes to step back and reflect on where life takes you – a few months ago, I had never been to Seattle, I did not know Hanford existed, and I didn’t ever really tie environmental issues into my faith. I believed in the need to do something about global warming, and I thought it was important to live as ‘green’ as possible in order to care for creation, but I didn’t think my faith required more engagement than that.

Emily and I live with four other housemates, the six of us making up Seattle’s first chapter of the Episcopal Service Corps. I’ve had friends do various religious-corps after graduating from college or graduate school, but I had not heard of anyone working at an advocacy-related or environmental-focused work site through any of these year-long programs. I didn’t think much about Emily’s placement at Hanford Challenge other than, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ I didn’t really think that it would affect my life much at all.

Now, three months into a year of living as an intentional community, I can’t believe it took me so long to get to Seattle, I can’t believe I had never been educated about the nuclear waste site that produced the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and I can’t believe I did not see the connection of environmental issues and my faith.

What I’ve learned in the past few months has made the idea of caring for the earth much more real and pressing. I had learned about the negative side of nuclear energy earlier in my life, but always in a context completely separate from myself. I had read personal accounts of the Chernobyl explosion and the following years of devastation, but nuclear energy still seemed so foreign. Living in Seattle, I can no longer keep nuclear energy and the environment tucked away in my mind as something fictional. Hanford is only three and a half hours away from my house, and on a clear day, I can see so much of our beautiful world that the idea of its degradation is a personal offense! The fear of nuclear harm not only on the environment, but also on health and wellness, and personal livelihoods, has become much more real and pressing. As people are hurt and lands upon which homes and communities are built continue to deteriorate, I have come to realize that I actually can’t separate my faith from the environment.

I work at a church in downtown Seattle, so I come from a Christian perspective, though I don’t believe that it is only the Christian faith that propels us to action in response to the unfair destruction of our world. Our churches, though, proclaim that seeking justice and peace is a key aspect of the Christian faith – and these past few months, I’ve learned that it is impossible to separate environmental degradation from that mission. Should we continue to turn away from the pressing need for adequate cleanup at the Hanford Site, we will be turning away from the health of those impacted by eating fish from the contaminated waters nearby. If we ignore the need to clean up our environment and preserve it, we’re ignoring the very real medical realities that come from exposure to radiation. The example of Jesus’s life, the example that the church is supposedly modeled after, is one that does not only address the ‘convenient’ injustices, the ones that only require a morning volunteer shift. Breaking the chains of oppression, including those chains placed by mismanagement, should be church business too. A renewed look at environmental stewardship wouldn’t hurt.

by: Delaney Ozmun

The Complexities of Hanford

WTP, DOE, EPA, RCRA, TPA – just some of the hundreds of acronyms the Hanford-savvy employ in conversation. The cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Site has to be one of the most enigmatic and intimidating topics I’ve come across. With a history extending back almost seventy years, and the presence of tribes on the land for thousands of years before that, it’s hard to even know where to begin learning about Hanford. Just understanding which agencies and contractors do what on the site seems to be an enormous challenge, let alone getting a grasp of the complex technical issues of waste storage and treatment on the site.

How are young people supposed to feel empowered to get involved in Hanford when we have so much learning to do on such an infinitely complex topic? We are, as the title of this blog conveys, inheriting a immense project that hugely impacts the future health of our communities and ecosystems. It is imperative that the voices of young people be heard, and that we learn enough about the goings-on at the Hanford site to speak up.

As I become more involved in Hanford issues, I have found a few particularly helpful places to turn to learn about Hanford. The first is a 2007 documentary called Arid Lands, which beautifully examines the ecosystems and communities around the Hanford Site, a land “marked by conflicting perceptions of wilderness and nature.” Information on purchasing the documentary is available here.

A second resource that has been helpful for contextualizing the Hanford cleanup is Hanford Cleanup: The First 20 Years, which was released by the Oregon Department of Energy in 2009. It is a long document, almost 200 pages, but I have found that it is one of the more comprehensive, accessible histories of the Hanford cleanup.

Of course, nothing beats the opportunity to talk to Hanford experts firsthand. The opportunities I’ve had to listen and ask questions from folks who have been around the Hanford Site for a long time have been integral to me understanding the site. If you are a young person interested in learning more about the Hanford cleanup, the Inheriting Hanford Mentorship Network will connect you with some amazing Hanford veterans who have volunteered to pass on the information they have on the Hanford site and answer questions that you may have.

by: Emily Bays

B Reaction

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In September, I had a chance to go on a tour of the Hanford Site’s B Reactor. The tour departed from a building on the edge of the Hanford Site. It was my first trip out to Hanford, and I had no idea of the scale of the site until the tour guide announced that it would take forty minutes to reach the B Reactor. The drive was beautiful; to the south was the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, including Rattlesnake Mountain, a 3,500 ft. ridge that is mostly inaccessible to the public. To the north was the Hanford site, and the other passengers gawked and pointed at the indiscriminate buildings on the horizon.

We finally arrived at the B Reactor. The B Reactor was built over a thirteen month period from 1943 to 1944. Using uranium mined in the Congo it produced the plutonium that was used in the “Fat Man” bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The B Reactor continued operating until 1968, and the calendar from February 1968 still hangs on the wall of the reactor’s control room. Many of the contents of the reactor still seem frozen in the sixties; eerie gas masks from earlier decades are on display and posted signs encourage workers to put out their cigarettes. Old radiation warning signs made me wonder what it would be like to be part of the 99 percent of Hanford workers who had no idea what they were doing for the initial years of the reactor’s operation. I often wonder about what we know now about occupational safety that wasn’t taken into account back then and how many Hanford workers have experienced adverse health effects.

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Though the construction of the B Reactor was an unimaginably huge accomplishment that occurred in a short period of time, its initial days of operation were not smooth. Workers needed to scram (emergency shutdown) the reactor 60 times in its first few months of operation. The B reactor also initially suffered from the effects of xenon poisoning, which occurred when accumulated xenon began absorbing too many neutrons and preventing the chemical reaction from continuing.  Filling an additional 500 process tubes with fuel allowed the chain reaction to be sustained and the plutonium to be made. Despite its early issues, the B Reactor set an important precedent for the design of nuclear reactors.

Touring the B Reactor allowed me to see firsthand the space that Hanford workers occupied for so many years during WWII and the Cold War. I also began to understand in a far more real way the unbelievable size and complexity of a project that was done so quickly and without the aid of modern computers.
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I do wonder how local Tribes view the preservation of historic sites like the B Reactor on the Hanford site, given that it contradicts the goal of restoring the site to its original state. It has been important to learn to be a critical consumer of information, always knowing that some viewpoints are underrepresented, especially in the context of official tours and publications. Absent in the tour for example were the perspectives of workers and community members who became sick as a result of their proximity to waste, the stories of Tribes in the area, and any contemplation of the effects of uranium mining on communities in Africa. Likewise, the ethics of nuclear weapon production went unquestioned. The tour was a fascinating, problematic, and thought-provoking experience, and I recommend that anyone who has a chance to go tour the site take the opportunity.

Tours are available both of the Hanford B Reactor and of the whole site. Tour reservations are in-demand, so be sure to reserve a spot as soon as possible when registration opens in March.  More information on Hanford tours is available here.

By: Emily Bays

Sharing Stories and Perspectives

Storytelling night at the Richland Public Library

On September 17th, I joined an audience of folks at the Richland Public Library who gathered to hear historian Michelle Gerber’s talk on Hanford in the 1940s and to share stories of their own. As I learn more about Hanford, it becomes increasingly apparent that there are not one but many histories of the site. Listening to personal narratives allows me to approach the site’s history and its cleanup with a more nuanced and compassionate understanding of the people involved and affected by Hanford.

Gerber described the context of the 1940s, which marked both the end of the great depression and the beginning of World War II. The war fervor swept the country, and millions of men were drafted. Tax rates and government debt soared as the war effort took off. A spirit of unity among those Americans supporting the war effort was juxtaposed with intensifying racism and the creation of internment camps.

100,000 people came to Hanford engineer works, recruited from all over the country. Women played a significant role in labor. Segregation and racism permeated the Hanford environment, with black workers assigned primarily to service positions.

The Hanford effort was astounding in its size and scope. In one day, Hanford workers regularly consumed 5,000 pounds of sausage, 18,000 pork chops, and 12,000 gallons of beer. What exactly was being done at Hanford was unknown to almost all workers, and key words that would expose the truth were replaced with euphemisms. Plutonium was known only as “product,” and radiation as “danger.” The residents of Richland did eventually become aware of their role in the production of the atomic bomb, which provoked in many a sense of great pride that was at times tempered by a fervent desire for peace and somber contemplation of the role of weapons technology in the future of humankind.

I am a newcomer to Hanford issues and history, and listening to Michelle Gerber and the other folks in the room who contributed their stories and memories was an important and thought-provoking experience. There are so many stakeholders that feel so strongly the repercussions of the Hanford site – those who have been displaced by the project, those who have gained employment, farmers, those who eat fish out of the river, and others who feel the lasting environmental impact of the site. I am grateful for spaces like the storytelling night in which dialogue and oral histories can be shared and preserved. I hope to seek out similar spaces in the future, and especially to hear more about the history and perspectives of tribes in the area. The level of complexity of the Hanford site’s history and cleanup means that I will never be done learning, but gradually I am increasing my capacity to help advocate for a just and thorough process that will protect the health of the environment and communities and respect the cultural significance of the Hanford Reach.

By: Emily Bays

My Sweet New Job

icecreamI joined the Hanford Challenge team as their new Communications and Development Director only a few months ago. I’ve had a great time attending our events from public meetings to happy hours, it’s been awesome getting to meet new people and learn more about the issues facing the Hanford nuclear waste site.

On August 31st I attended my first “Hanford Challenge Ice Cream Social” in Volunteer Park, Seattle. Not knowing exactly what to expect, I was informed by my co-worker Liz that people would be have to perform certain tasks and “earn” their free ice cream. All of these activities centered around informing people about Hanford and asking them to “take action,” either by completing a public comment about the cleanup and/or signing the Hanford Challenge petition urging Congress to build new waste tanks on the site to help safely store any excess or leaking waste from aging tanks.

The event was a great success – we had lovely weather and a steady stream of people interested in “earning” free ice cream! Ages ranged from very young children venturing with their parents, to older citizens who knew a lot about Hanford!  It’s a nice way to introduce members of the public who may not know anything about Hanford to the issues facing the site and what impact it has on their lives and the region. The problems at Hanford are deep-rooted and ongoing, the more the public is aware of them and is able to participate in the process, the greater the likelihood for a safe and effective cleanup that protects everyone’s future!

By: Kathryn Sain

Autumn at Hanford

It was in the autumn that I began to see the beauty in the shrub steppe desert that is the Hanford Site. We came to Kennewick, Washington from the midwest in January of 1986. I was pleasantly surprised by the mild winter – mild compared to the below zero weather in Iowa! That first summer we didn’t venture much out of the Tri Cities so we didn’t get much acquainted with the desert that surrounds the cities and towns of southeast Washington. My first impression was that there were only different shades of brown. The first autumn we spent in the Tri-Cities was sort of a shock. I was used to and looked forward to the extraordinary fall leaf colors that typically begin in late September and extend into October in the midwest. There were some trees in the populated areas of the Tri Cities and along the Columbia and Yakima rivers that did change colors a bit but I was mightily disappointed!

In 1988 I began my career on the Hanford Site…the first assignment was in the “200 Area”, just about smack in the middle of the site. Not much to see from a vanpool at 6 a.m. in the morning! I was located in one office complex or another – mostly in the central part of the site for the next decade or so.

Following that I was transferred to the 100K area – that’s when my route to work took me “the back way” along the Columbia River past all the reactors, the Hanford townsite and a lot of untouched desert area. That first autumn working in the K Area was the genesis of my love affair with the land, plants and animals that exist on the Hanford Site. My initial concern was for the workers, present and past. I had hanford elkbecome engaged in participating on the Hanford Advisory Board in 1995 but really didn’t feel the depth and breadth of the gifts of the Hanford lands until my K area days.

I don’t know the names of all the native plants but many of them showed me their finest colors while driving to and from the K area that first autumn. One morning in particular stands out in my mind. While driving past the old Hanford townsite I noticed a herd of elk milling about in the distance near the river so I took the long way to work to more closely view them. I was overcome with a sense of awe when I observed two large male elk fighting each other. They were magnificent!! Yes, I was late for work but I carefully pulled off the road to watch that great spectacle knowing that I might never see something like it again and being privy to that wonderful event of nature was totally worth it. That one event made me look at Hanford in a different way and added to my Hanford journey of constant discovery.

Remediating Hanford is a multi-faceted diamond with positive and negative consequences for every action or inaction. It will never be easy but it will always be worth it. I’m constantly trying to see the “big picture” – environmentally and economically now and in the future as cleanup decisions are made and then implemented.

By: Susan Leckband
Mom, Wife, Sister, Grandmother and former Hanford worker.

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