Hanford Lesson #1: Appearances Can Be Deceiving
On February 8, 2013, the Department of Energy (DOE) changed the cover photo of the Hanford Site Facebook (FB) page to a striking aerial photograph of the Columbia River. In the photo, the river weaves from the background to the foreground, turning from white blue to sky blue. A road runs along the side of the river, and tiny buildings are visible in the distance, but the land is otherwise unmarred by human activity. The terrain, a mix of flatlands and white, shadowy bluffs, looks like a relief map painted in shades of brown. The earth colors and the time of day make the entire photo look hazy, and the haziness makes the Scablands beautiful. On that same day, as always, Hanford Site’s profile picture sat in the lower left-hand corner of the cover photo. The picture is a cartoonish version of the DOE’s seal, which consists of a shield decorated with tiny depictions of the sun, an atom, an oil well, a windmill, and a turbine— symbols that represent the agency’s many energy-related “missions”— and a bald eagle, in profile. (Cleaning up nuclear waste is one of the DOE’s most significant and costly jobs, and yet that mission is not represented on its seal.)
The juxtaposition of images—river side by side with government emblem—illustrates some of the curious things happening on the Hanford Site FB page. While the DOE’s seal marks the page as a legitimate source of information about Hanford, the cover photo—which spans most of the page—demonstrates the agency’s attention to matters beyond its official mission at Hanford. Visitors to the FB page learn little about Hanford’s history of radioactive colonialism, its prolonged and expensive cleanup, and its inability to contain threats to people and the environment. Instead, the DOE distracts its audience with photos— like the one of the Columbia River— in which the site’s landscape is portrayed as “pristine” and “intact.”
Indeed, the DOE posted the photo of the Columbia without any textual interpretation, a move that makes it easy to forget the history of the landscape there. Only someone intimately familiar with Hanford would know that this single bend in the Columbia flows by a decommissioned reactor, the crumbling buildings of a former town, and a portion of the Hanford Reach National Monument that’s dedicated to scientific research. These marks on the landscape represent a fraught history of early settlement, weapons production, and enclosure justified by science, but that history is rendered invisible (or perhaps irrelevant) by the dazzling image of the river. Though the DOE uses the beauty of the Columbia to publicize its cleanup work and even refers to itself as a “steward” of the river, recent revelations about waste tank leaks support what many have known about Hanford for decades— that the DOE is not protecting the river from site contaminants.
By: Erica Elliot