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The Columbia is the great river of paradoxes. Stoke by stroke, we are paddling deeper and deeper into a conundrum. But the contradictions are mostly ours, not the river’s. Let’s start with this one. Hanford’s corridor of reactors, nine in all, were located here because of the free-flowing river. The river in the Reach remains undammed because of those nukes. The river on both sides of the Reach is dammed up largely to provide power for the Hanford nukes. They call them the Cold War dams: Priest Rapids, McNary, John Day and The Dalles. Each were sold to the public on the promise of cheap power, but much of that energy was secretly re-directed up to Hanford for the production of plutonium for H-bombs. The great salmon-fishing grounds of Celilo were lost largely to satiate Hanford’s unquenchable thirst for electric power.
Of course, that didn’t stop the Army Corps of Engineers from wanting to inundate the Reach behind a mega-dam to be constructed near Pasco. The plans were first drawn up in 1932, then shelved until the early 1970s, when an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, steelhead fishermen and the Atomic Energy Commission, who were then in charge of Hanford, beat it down.
But dams don’t perish so easily and the Pasco project, called the Ben Franklin Dam (at least they didn’t appropriate the name of a local chief like Kamiakan), was resurrected by the Carter Administration in 1978. Most dams, like wars, are instigated by Democrats. This time the dam wasn’t sold as an engine of cheap hydro-power, but as a mighty facilitator of marine commerce. The idea was to open the entire upper Columbia River to barge traffic and, in the process, make Wenatchee, Washington, nearly 500 river miles from the coast, a deep water port. The Corps sank another $2 million into engineering studies to justify the dam and boosters poured in another $2 million in pr touting how the project would transform the Inland Empire into a glorious engine of commerce.
Alas, it was not to be. This time the dam was killed off by the Reagan administration, which was forced to confront the uncomfortable fact that the waters of the reservoir would have encroached upon the most toxic soil in the world: the radioactive tank farms of Hanford. The sages in the Reagan White House wisely decided that it was better to let the 177 vats of radioactive slop discretely corrode and leak into the groundwater than risk exhuming them and publicly confronting the treacherous mess that had been left behind as an eternal relic of the nation’s four-decade long obsession with devices of nuclear annihilation.
So in 1981 the Ben Franklin project was shelved once again. And there it sits, biding its time for a third incarnation. What’s the half-life of a dam?
American White Pelican.
Merrily, merrily we float. Downstream, always downstream. Such a beautiful word. A word with an unimpeachable integrity and authenticity. On this lonely stretch of river, pelicans are our only companions. The big white birds are graceful flyers on 10-foot wingspan, much more so than the ungainly great blue herons that stalk the riverbanks and bark irritably when we paddle by. Both the herons and the pelicans are fish-eaters. The pelicans are voracious feeders, each bird eats as much as 5 pounds of fish each day—more when they are feeding chicks. The white pelicans of the Reach aren’t diving birds, like their cousins the brown pelicans of the coast. Instead, they take their prey from the surface of the river while swimming. If ravens are the coyotes of the avian world, pelicans behave more like wolves. They live in highly organized social groups. They hunt together often in coordinated groups of six or ten birds. Sometimes the groups will split, with some pelicans pushing schools of fish into shallow water where the other birds are waiting and a communal and often synchronized feeding frenzy ensues.
The white pelicans will eat almost any fish: chub, perch, bass, carp, rainbow trout. But it’s the salmon they love. It’s the salmon that have lured them here, decade after decade, in great migrations from their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.
But it’s that passion for fish that has put the pelican, and the herons, eagles and osprey, at risk. For even though the Hanford Reach is home to the last vibrant run of wild Chinook salmon on the Columbia River, those fish, and the others in the Reach, are contaminated with an array of radionuclides and other atomic debris leaching inexorably into the Columbia from the Hanford’s 1400 haphazardly-placed waste dumps. By one estimate, these dumps have leaked three-million curies of radiation into the river every year from 1950 through the 1980s. The radiation continues to leak–though leak is perhaps not the right word—largely unabated by the latest techno-fixes.
At Hanford, environmental mitigation is an expensive illusion. How expensive? Back in 2000, the price-tag for cleaning up Hanford was pegged at $100 billion dollars. But in the intervening decade the extent of the contamination has more than tripled. This is delightful news for contractors, such as CHM2 Hill, Westinghouse, Batelle, Bechtel, but a dismal diagnosis for the ecosystem. Just ask any pelican.
Pumphouse for K Reactors.
On river right we pass the old pumphouse near the sprawling K Reactor complex. The building is gouged roughly into the river bank. It has a crenellated roofline and dark windows, looking like a ruined castle on the Scottish moors. The pumphouse fed millions of gallons of water into the so-called sister reactors and later into the menacing K-Basins.
When Hanford suddenly stopped producing plutonium in the late 1980s, the atomic engineers were left with a problem. There were more than 100,000 uranium fuel rods and rod fragments that had been irradiated but wouldn’t be processed into plutonium. What to do with this hot property? After a few seconds of deliberation, they decided to sink it.
In the 1950s, two vast concrete pools had been constructed less than 400 yards from the Columbia River as temporary storage lagoons. Even though these basins were already 10 years beyond their 20-year life expectancy, the Department of Energy decided to fill them each with a million gallons of water and submerge the deteriorating fuel assemblies.
Out of sight, out of mind. Naturally, it didn’t work out that way. Almost immediately, the K-East Basin sprang leaks. Highly radioactive water began to spill onto the ground and leach its way into the river. The irradiate rods began to corrode and decay, dissolving into a lethal sludge.
In 1994, the Energy Department began the dangerously experiment task of fishing out the 2,100 metric tons of fuel rods from the K East Basin. It took them 10 years to remove the fuel rods and then they hit the sludge. The fuel rods were packed away in another spooky structure at Hanford called the Canister Storage Building, but the thick band of sludge at the bottom of the basin was sucked up in giant vacuums over a four-year period, stuffed in canisters and then submerged into the K West Basin. The million gallons of water was sucked from the basin, run quickly through a treatment plant and then, somewhat unbelievably, simply sprayed on the ground.
So much for the problematic K East Basin, right? Wrong. In turns out that the ground beneath the basin is thoroughly saturated with radioactive scum.
K Reactor Complex.
What about the K West Basin, you ask. Good question. It remains filled to the brim with water, fuel rods and sludge. The genial folks at Hanford say not to worry. This radioactive swimming pool is quite impermeable. So far.
But there’s no time to dally on such trifles today. The river pulls us away. The current picks up steam. We hit a standing wave, sending a cold spray over the kayak. Then another and another. Suddenly we’re drenched. This is Coyote Rapids, a bouncy wave train that is over just as we start to enjoy it. We try to paddle furiously back upstream to ride it again, but the river pushes us back. Exclusive engagement, no replays.
We slide into an eddy below the rapids and nose the kayak toward a gravel bar.
“Look at that,” Josh says pointing toward a large bolt in the river. It is bone-white and four-feet long.
“No wonder this place sprang a leak.”
Hanford’s missing bolt.
We pull the kayak on the bank and step on forbidden ground. Josh heads toward the nearest mutant willow tree to take a piss, while I climb up an old road bed to get a better view of the K Reactor complex. The road ends at a fence topped with razor wire. There is a large sign featuring stark red letters:
You are entering the Hanford Site Emergency Zone. If you hear a steady 3 minute siren leave the area IMMEDIATELY. Turn your radio to KONA 610 AM for emergency information.
“Hey, Josh, where’s our damn radio?”
“Back with the Tequila.”
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
All photographs by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR.