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Q&A: The Most Toxic Town in America

October 23, 2018
by Glen Martin
Hanford Sign

Located in the high desert of eastern Washington along the Columbia River, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation has played a crucial role in global war and peace for more than half a century. It’s also the most heavily contaminated nuclear site in the country—one that few people know about.

Established as part of the Manhattan Project in 1943, Hanford housed the world’s first plutonium reactor, providing the fissile material for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki and ended World War II. During the Cold War it expanded dramatically, ultimately churning out enough plutonium from nine reactors and five processing facilities to build more than 50,000 nuclear weapons.

But plutonium production is a messy business, leaving a residuum that can stay deadly for millennia. Radioactive isotopes were released in quantity during Hanford’s decades of plutonium production, and the scope of the subsequent contamination overwhelms comprehension. More than 50 million gallons of liquid high-level radwaste and 25 million cubic feet of solid hot waste remained at the complex after operations ceased. Radioactive material had also leached into the soil, contaminating more than 200 square miles of underlying aquifer, resulting in leakage of radioactive groundwater into the Columbia River.

Hanford, in short, is the largest environmental remediation project in the nation, and bodes to remain that way for decades—or more likely, centuries. A 1989 agreement between the federal government and the State of Washington to clean up the complex remains in force, and requisite efforts are proceeding—albeit with numerous glitches, ranging from leakage of high-level liquid waste to worker exposure to radioactivity.

Surprisingly, Hanford remains off the radar for most Americans. But it is rich and productive soil for researchers—including Shannon Cram, an assistant professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington at Bothell, who has personal ties to the site.

Cram’s grandfather worked briefly at Hanford, and her mother grew up about 40 miles from the complex. Everything about Hanford fascinates Cram, from its geopolitical significance to the technical details of clean-up efforts. But mostly, she’s interested in the site’s impact on culture and political thought. Cram completed her Ph.D. in geography at UC Berkeley with a dissertation on “the politics of waste, health and radiation” at Hanford, and is gaining attention for her expertise on the social impacts of nuclear contamination; she currently serves on Hanford’s Advisory Board, and expects to publish a book on the civil and political fallout of nuclear waste sites in 2020.

California Magazine sat down to talk to Cram about Hanford and her work.

California Magazine: Considering its impacts on both geopolitics and the environment, why are people largely ignorant of Hanford?

Shannon Cram: I deal with that every day. At the start of classes, I sometimes ask students to raise their hands if they know about Hanford, and a lot of people keep their hands down. And many of them grew up in Washington. It just hasn’t really registered. More people know something about Los Alamos than Hanford, and far more people know about Fukushima and Chernobyl. In the case of Los Alamos, I think that may have something to do with the fact that it’s a laboratory, not a factory, as Hanford was. And Los Alamos is associated in popular culture with Trinity, where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Labs, research—that’s far more glamorous than fabrication and production. And as for Fukushima and Chernobyl, those were dramatic, quick events—they burst into the news cycle. And Trinity was literally explosive. But Hanford was slow, is slow, so slow it doesn’t really jibe well with human consciousness. I see that when I sometimes ask my new students to draw a picture of [something associated] with The Bomb, and they invariably sketch a mushroom cloud, not a radioactive plume. But the effects we’re feeling these days from nuclear weapons have more to do with the plume than the cloud.

CM: In your work, you often cite the differences in time scales between people and some of the environmental impacts they cause. Can you elaborate on that?

SC: There’s a certain poignancy to human beings attempting to address a contamination issue like Hanford. Essentially, they’re required to make policy decisions that must apply for centuries, or longer—longer, in all likelihood, than the United States will be around. I’m on the advisory board at Hanford, not in any decision-making capacity, but I can and do make suggestions. Everyone is in a room, saying this is what we should do, this is what we agreed on. But any real sense of progress can fall away when it concretizes into a bureaucratic process. There can be a sense of inadequacy when you’re dealing with scenarios on Hanford’s scale.

CM: You talk about the “politics of impossibility” in regard to Hanford. Does that imply that a true clean-up is impossible?

SC: To a very real degree. Getting back to time scales—the scale for safely storing high level radioactive waste is so long that it outstrips our abilities to devise effective strategies. For example, current remediation plans are based on Hanford and the surrounding area remaining a desert. But we’re moving into an era of long-term climate change. What happens if rainfall increases, if the entire region is wetter? The current plans, for example, don’t necessarily ensure that leakage of radioactive materials into the Columbia River won’t increase.

CM: It sounds like an intractable problem.

SC: The remediation will never be 100 percent. Hanford will never be restored to its previous state. There is a profound disconnect between public and scientific notions of clean-up. It’s commonly thought that when the work is ‘done,’ it’ll be poof! No more waste. But the waste won’t disappear. It’s more about trying to move it from unstable and risky storage areas to storage areas that may be less risky—about digging it up in one place and burying it in another, basically. But nothing disappears. It’ll take thousands of years for the dangerous levels of radioactivity in these materials to degrade to a safe level. So it’s about trying to improve storage, and it’s about establishing baselines for permissible exposure more than about eliminating exposure. You are ultimately asking people to accept a certain amount of risk, to agree to a certain amount of death.

CM: Is that integral to modern life? The implicit acceptance of ongoing and significant environmental risk?

SC: I’m deeply intrigued about the implications of living in a contaminated world, and the accommodations we make to that reality. Because it isn’t just about Hanford, of course. Nuclear waste feels exceptional, but you see the essential problem reflected elsewhere—with [California’s] Proposition 65, for example [which requires businesses to post notices about possible exposure to toxic chemicals]. We find ourselves faced with environmental impacts we may not be able to ‘solve.’ We have to respond to these challenges—we can’t be so fatalistic that we do nothing. We need to improve what we can improve, but we shouldn’t necessarily expect stellar results. And given that perspective, I’m deeply inspired by the people who work at Hanford. Their work can be depressing and it can involve personal risk, and they know it won’t ever stop. They know it can’t ever stop. But they keep at it, and they give me hope.

CM: What does Hanford say generally about civil planning and policy making, particularly as we move forward?

SC: Hanford is a paradox on many levels, and I’m constantly grappling with it. But I have a couple of takeaways. First, let’s not make more of this highly dangerous waste. Hubris got us into this situation, and we shouldn’t repeat past mistakes. Hanford makes a superb case for being cautious. We also need structures of accountability that are sensitive to ambiguity, that acknowledge ambiguity. When people say they’re sick from environmental contamination, we should believe them. And we have to figure out ways to keep the public engaged. That’s very difficult, particularly for something that literally will never end, at least from the perspective of human time scales.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Hanford, and I still visit four or five times a year. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation [completed in 2015], I developed breast cancer. My sister also has had breast cancer, and my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 2014. My father died from colon cancer in 2005. But I wouldn’t link my cancer to Hanford—or claim that my mother’s cancer resulted from her living relatively close to Hanford at one time. I really don’t think our diseases have any connection to Hanford because cancer is ubiquitous, and we’re exposed to a great deal of environmental contamination no matter where we live. Cancer can be a consequence of living in a contaminated world, and Hanford has to be considered in that context.

CM: You’ve written about one strange upside to the Hanford debacle: The entire reservation has become a vast wildlife reserve due to the cessation of human activity. The same thing happened at Chernobyl, of course. Wildlife, including many rare species such as wolves, have reclaimed the hot zones and apparently are thriving.:

SC: It’s so fascinating. These giant eco-reserves that have developed at contaminated nuclear sites play into the contradictory logic of The Bomb itself. The Bomb was a potential source of both salvation and catastrophe, and we see the same paradox playing out with these toxic wildlands. They point to the broader logic that drove nuclear weapons.

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