Declare War on Hanford!

Excerpt from an essay [September 9, 1994]

The worst of Hanford's waste has yet to reach the river, but like the armies of Armageddon, it's on the march. And there's enough of it to kill all life on the face of the Earth.

The federal government's best response has been to bury its head in the sand. Since the U.S. Department of Energy has no idea what to do or where to start, they've launched a public relations campaign aimed at alerting the public to past abuses — those of previous administrations — while assuring everyone they have everything under control.

This policy has backfired. Given no sense of urgency, Congress has extended the timetable and reduced funding for the Hanford clean-up — mislabeled because many contaminants are too hot to handle with the primitive tools of today's technology, and some are beyond the reach of sub-surface monitors. No one knows how much there is, where it's located, or what to do with it.

The Tri-Cities of Pasco, Richland and Kennewick, towns whose economies turned sour when plutonium production for nuclear bombs ceased in 1987, are experiencing boom times with the emergence of this new multi-billion-dollar boondoggle, the Clean-Up Industry.

So, instead of focusing the touted Hanford Summit II on the potential threat to the world's ecosystem, and the grave dangers of delays and miscalculations, they turned the conference into a local economic development showcase.

Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts, disgusted with the script, threatened to boycott the production. More to the point, she was upset at being cast as an extra. When at last she was given a speaking role, her idealistic bombast melted and she dropped into a neat slot: Her speech focused on economic development possibilities.

If solutions to the (unsolvable) problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste surface from time to time in the media mix, they're either sleight-of-hand tricks or oily smoke screens. Take Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a strong contender for the nation's first nuclear waste repository.

DOE presses ahead with costly studies despite the pleas of University of Colorado geophysicist Charles Archambeau and others who believe ground-water percolation will one day poison the biosphere. States Dr. Archambeau: "If you want to envision the end of the world, that's it."

We've had headlines in recent years screaming "Hanford might explode!" Poisoning is more likely. It starts with the aquifer beneath Hanford, a fait accompli. It spreads down the Columbia River, a pipeline into the Pacific Ocean, and from there, throughout the global ecosystem.

In June, 1992, Les Blumenthal, writing for McClatchy New Service, revealed that 106-C, a forty-five-year-old tank full of highly radioactive waste, most likely leaked. He'd obtained a copy of a letter from Roger Stanley, head of the Washington State Department of Ecology's nuclear waste management program, to Phil Hamric, deputy manager of the reservation, which states:

"(C)onservative evaluation...leads me to believe that thousands of gallons of contaminated water may have leaked from this tank in the last year...." He goes on to estimate that "10,000 gallons of tank liquids" may have leaked during a five-month period.

Every four to eight weeks, the folks who tended 106-C pumped in anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 gallons of water to prevent heat generated by radioactive decay from cracking open the reinforced concrete shell. Stanley determined evaporation alone couldn't account for the volume of missing water. His logical conclusion? Leakage.

His reason for qualifying his statements with "may" is equally frightening: The "present surveillance system does not provide a reliable means for detecting leaks."

In July, 1994, The Oregonian's Hanford reporter, Jim Long, wrote that managers had allowed 106-C to dry out, figuring that way no more water would leak. As temperatures reached the boiling point, tank tenders scrambled to pump in 30,000 gallons of water. Despite all this, DOE and Westinghouse Hanford, overseers of the operation, still deny the tank is leaking!

In the meantime, where has all the hot water gone? As I say, I won't swim in the Columbia River anymore.

T.S. Eliot knew the world would end "not with a bang but a whimper." A friend closed his thriving antique store in Portland, Oregon and packed his family off to Portland, Maine. He knows.

Given the appalling facts and statistics now being dribbled out by the DOE, you'd expect to see vast hordes of angry citizens marching on Washington, D.C. as they did in the past for such causes as jobs and civil rights. Surely the end of all life on the planet is at least equal.

But we don't feel the death of Earth in our gut the way we feel the lack of food on our table. We don't feel it in our heart the way we feel the lack of justice and compassion by our fellow beings. We don't feel it in our bones. Yet.

Our reasons for not forming a wall of bodies ten deep around the perimeter of the Hanford Reservation read like a litany of the disenfranchised: It's out of our hands. It's not as bad as they say. The government knows what to do. Meanwhile: Who's playing today? What's for dessert?

We need to reach into the human psyche to see the underlying causes of the paradox at work here. We're too caught up in our mundane little lives to conceive of anything so grand as a global wipe-out. Sure, it happened to the dinosaurs, but that was millions of years ago. A freak of nature, not something dinosaurs brought down on themselves. Besides, we're smarter than dinosaurs.

We tune out immediate threats to our well-being by retreating into Collective Shock Syndrome, a form of mass hysteria wherein we put on our pink goggles, turn up the volume on our headsets, and pop a few happy pills.

We see the syndrome at work in many arenas, most notably those having something to do with survival. Threats that should strike fear instead feel like old shoes: Ozone Depletion. Acid Rain. Global Warming. We hear about sheep going blind, freaky weather and dying forests, but those things happen only in such far-off places as Chile, Bangladesh and Finland. We don't make the connection.

I read about a gathering at which scientists tried to foresee a time when Earth's inhabitants had no knowledge of nuclear waste. What symbols might best convey the stark terror buried beneath their feet? How do we warn them to stay the hell away? The best scientific minds drew a blank.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation remains America's Number One death-dealing device, but we can't lay all the blame on the federal government.

We who live in the Pacific Northwest are culpable: For permitting this malignancy to exist in our region. For not swarming the gates of Hanford to protest. For not flooding Congress and the White House with angry messages. For not confronting the Lords of Yesterday, who wallow in wealth at the expense of unborn generations. For re-electing politicians who don't give a damn.

There is a way. Declare war on Hanford. Throw the nation's entire military appropriation into a go-for-broke effort, first to keep Hanford's wastes from the Columbia River, and then to contain or neutralize the worst of it for all time.

The money is there. It was there when Lyndon Johnson tried to firm our hold on the vast oil reserves of the South China Sea. It was there when George (H.W.) Bush tried to firm our hold on the vast oil reserves of Kuwait and Somalia. It would have been there for Bill Clinton had Bosnia or Rwanda contained vast oil reserves.

While we're at it, let's honor the Treaty of 1855. Tear down the worst of the dams. Revitalize the Columbia River. Revive the wild salmon. Rebuild the fishing platforms at Celilo and Kettle Falls.

Pipe dreams. The river grows deadlier by the day, and no one lifts a finger.

Letter to the Oregonian [December 30, 1993]

Americans are quick to condemn atrocities so long as they occur elsewhere and are perpetrated by the Bad Guys.

Now the Department of Energy is feeding us a daily dose of crimes against humanity committed or abetted by our own government — the deliberate poisoning of American citizens with no nobler goal than to "see what happens" when human beings are bombarded with radiation.

How is the public reacting? Except for downwinders and military victims who suffer a variety of ailments, the best we can muster if a collective ho-hum.

We express revulsion at experiments performed by the Germans and the Japanese during World War II while smugly reminding ourselves the Axis powers were evil. It's time we took a hard look in the mirror.

Downwinders: A Villanelle

We see reflected in the looking glass
Old friends whose lives we seek to validate—
Reason enough to storm the gates en masse.

We grew up drinking milk from cows whose grass
Was tainted by atomic waste. The hate
We see reflected in the looking glass

Reminds us of the government's morass.
To hide their shame and guilt they fabricate—
Reason enough to storm the gates en masse.

We die from cancer of the pancreas.
The government attributes this to fate.
We see, reflected in the looking glass,

Rebellion's fiery eyes. Forewarned of mass
Graves, We the People might repudiate
Reason—enough to storm the gates en masse.

We're told priorities are cast in brass.
They grease the war machine and cease debate.
We see, reflected in the looking glass,
Reason enough to storm the gates en masse.

[Displayed as part of "Particles On The Wall (POTW), a multi-disciplinary traveling exhibit that explores elements of the nuclear age and in particular the world wide implications of the Hanford nuclear site.]