catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 11 :: 2010.05.28 — 2010.06.10


Unexpected legacies

Last week, I remembered my eighth grade Delaware State History Day project.  My friend and I made a poster entitled, “The Beatles: Frontiers in Rock & Roll.”  At the University of Delaware that day, our poster shared the table with the winning poster, which was about the Manhattan Project.

Why does this memory strike me, nine years later?  While I’ve been listening to the Beatles since eighth grade, it was only eight months ago that I started spending 40 hours a week learning about and organizing people around the most toxic legacy of the Manhattan Project: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Southeastern Washington State.

Hanford’s nine reactors along the Columbia River produced 67.4 metric tons of plutonium, supplying more than enough for the bulk of the United States’ burgeoning nuclear arsenal during World War II and the Cold War.  Moral judgments on nuclear weapons aside, plutonium production at Hanford left behind a toxic legacy of environmental contamination that will outlive even my generation.

While Hanford’s reactors buzzed away creating plutonium, the byproducts — radioactive and hazardous wastes — were erratically and irresponsibly managed.  To create plutonium, spent uranium fuel rods are essentially melted down in acid, to extract minute amounts of plutonium.  The end result at Hanford was trillions of gallons of liquid waste and, according to the most recent declassified documents, 67.4 metric tons of plutonium.  The nastiest of the wastes were stored in underground tanks that are now leaking, while the rest of it was discharged into the soil, allowed to overflow directly from the tanks or washed downstream via the Columbia River.

Honestly, I never thought much about nuclear weapons before I started working on Hanford issues, and I only got into it because my passions lie in environmental and public health awareness and activism.  However, as the weeks pass and I absorb more and more information about nuclear weapons, I am deeply saddened. The U.S. nuclear arsenal does not make me feel safe; instead, it makes me nervous.  The history of weapons production at Hanford, and at other sites across the US, has left us with many distressing legacies.  As a person of faith, committed to seeking justice for the oppressed, the inherent value of human life and a call to stewardship of this Earth, these legacies are particularly troubling.

Three Legacies

My formation as an environmentalist taught me life-cycle thinking, which considers a product’s impacts from pre-production to disposal.  We are faced with devastating legacies all throughout a nuclear weapon’s life-cycle, a testament to the hidden costs of nuclear weapons production in the United States.  Right now, we will consider three unexpected legacies of production at Hanford.  First, Hanford’s land — 586 square miles — belongs by treaty to three Native American tribes, the Yakama, the Nez Perce and the Umatilla.  Although the tribes are very active in the ongoing cleanup efforts at Hanford, the land will never be returned to them in pristine condition, which is their hope.

The product Hanford created, the plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb that the United States dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, also leaves a painful legacy.  The Fat Man caused an estimated 40,000-70,000 deaths, on top of the psychological pain and disease from fall out and the other ramifications of radiation exposure.

Finally, the legacy that will most immediately dwell with residents of the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years: Hanford is the most environmentally contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere. Projected timelines for cleanup activities stretch thirty years in the future under the best scenarios, and those scenarios do not address all of the contamination.  An Oregon historian, Cain Allen, wrote regarding Hanford, “Our wastes will remain though, for our children, for our grandchildren, and for those people twelve thousand years from now to deal with — one might call this generational injustice.”

What now?

Although I am encouraged by President Obama’s, and before him, Ronald Reagan’s, strong policies towards nuclear disarmament, we need to understand that the issue does not stop there.  Dismantling nuclear weapons is no small feat, and there are now thousands of weapons in queue.  It is dangerous for the workers and the highly radioactive materials still need to be secured and stored for thousands of years.

Hanford is not the only past-production site; there are dozens scattered across the United States.  Look up the site nearest you and participate in the cleanup process by staying informed on current events and speaking up when decisions are not serving the public interest.

So, the winning eighth grade history day poster was about the Manhattan Project, and I am inclined to agree that its subject made a more significant impact on world history than the Beatles did.  We need to be reminded, though, that there is much more to the issue of nuclear weapons production in the United States than just the weapons arsenal, as evidenced by Hanford’s lasting legacies of environmental contamination and justice issues.

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