The Most Toxic Place in America: An Interview with Joshua Frank

Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America is now available in the CounterPunch Store.


Steve Skrovan: Welcome to the Ralph Nader Radio Hour. My name is Steve Skrovan, along with my co-host, David Feldman. Hello, David.

David Feldman: Good morning.

Steve Skrovan: And we have the man of the hour, Ralph Nader. Hello, Ralph.

Ralph Nader: Hello, everybody.

Steve Skrovan: For anyone who’s considering new nuclear power plants as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, I’m talking to you, Oliver Stone. Our first guest has a sobering reminder. We’re still cleaning up our old nuclear messes. First up today, we’ll be speaking with journalist Joshua Frank. In his new book, Atomic Days. He shines a light on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, the most toxic place in America, and an environmental cleanup site with a $677 billion price tag so far. For nearly 40 years, Hanford produced plutonium for America’s nuclear arsenal. Today it’s home to 56 million gallons of poorly stored radioactive waste. It’s already contaminating groundwater supplies. And an explosive accident there would rival Chernobyl.

We’ll speak to Mr. Frank about his book and the strong bonds between nuclear power and atomic weapons, the land they destroy and the people they exploit. That brings us to the second half of the show. On a good day, immigrating to the United States is a tricky process. When Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration rolled out more than 400 policy and regulatory changes to make immigration as painful as possible. Trump may be a one-term washout, but those punishing policies continue to impact stakeholders despite the best efforts of advocates who mobilize to stall implementation and represent the people caught in the middle.

Our second guest will be immigration attorney Susan Cohen. We’ll speak to her about her work over the last three decades, helping prospective Americans navigate our complex and confusing immigration system, and about her book, Journeys From There to Here, which profiles some of her clients and tells the human stories at the heart of immigration.

We’re also going to take some time out to talk about the upcoming midterm elections. And as always, somewhere in the middle, we’ll check in with our corporate crime reporter, Russell Mokhiber. But first, how would you like to find out you live in the most toxic place in America? David?

David Feldman: Joshua Frank is an investigative journalist and the managing editor of the political magazine CounterPunch. He is also an author. His latest book is Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America. Welcome to the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, Joshua Frank.

Joshua Frank: Hi, thanks for having me.

Ralph Nader: Yeah, welcome indeed, Joshua. This venture of yours on the Hanford Reservation in Eastern Washington State, now start with the geography, Joshua. How large is this reservation and how did it become a federal entity?

Joshua Frank: Yeah, well, it’s about half the size of Rhode Island. It is a huge land mass that’s in eastern Washington. The location was basically picked because of its remoteness during the Manhattan Project. It’s along the Columbia River. In order to have nuclear power, you have to have access to clean, ample water. So they had a lot of water, and the and constant electricity because of the dams. But it was also out of sight, out of mind. It was easy to have this big covert operation happening out there. And of course, the Indigenous population and others, typically poor farmers, were easy to remove from the landscape so that they could erect this atomic beast that ended up churning out plutonium for decades.

Ralph Nader: Explain the Manhattan Project.

Joshua Frank: Sure. The Manhattan Project was a covert military operation. Different locations were chosen around the country to develop a nuclear bomb, and from that, Hanford was the site that was chosen to produce plutonium, which became the fuel for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, and then, over the course of four more decades, was churning out virtually all of the radioactive fuel for our nuclear arsenal in this country. And now we’re dealing with the aftermath of that.

Ralph Nader: Well, the Hanford Reservation now is soaked with radioactive waste. They have all kinds of gigantic tanks. Some of them are leaking and they’re perilously close to the Columbia River. How close are they to the giant Columbia River?

Joshua Frank: Some of them are only miles away. It’s hard to wrap your head around how much waste is out there. There are 177 underground tanks, 149 of which are single-shell tanks. These tanks were only supposed to last 20 to 25 years. We’re going on 80 years. We’ve had upwards of 67 known leaks. I would argue there’s probably been a lot more. Two of those tanks are leaking now. Those tanks hold 56 million gallons of radioactive bubbling, hot waste that will be bubbling well past our lifetimes. And right now they’re trying to figure out what to do with it. The two tanks that are currently leaking are being allowed to leak because they don’t have an answer for it. It’s unbelievable. It’s really a perilous situation. For the book, I interviewed some DOE scientists, one of which was Dr. Alexander who went on record with me and talked about his concern for a potential explosion in one of these tanks. If the hydrogen buildup happens, you could see a horrific explosion that would be unlike anything that this country has ever witnessed before. So it’s a really horrible situation, and this doesn’t even talk about what else is going on out there. For example, there was a million gallons of waste that has leaked out of these tanks while it was operating. There are billions and billions of gallons of chemical sewage that was literally just dumped into the soil. All of this is making its way into the groundwater supply which feeds the Columbia River. So it’s a very dire situation.

Ralph Nader: Let’s back up a bit. What’s the federal agency that’s in charge and who’s the contractor? They always privately contract out this administration of Hanford. Is anything actively being produced there, or is it just the legacy of waste from the atomic bomb programs and from nuclear power plants?

Joshua Frank: Well, the cleanup is allegedly being overseen by the Department of Energy, and the big contractor out there that’s making most of the money is Bechtel, which has a very horrible track record, as we all know, with many projects over the course of its lifetime. It’s a private corporation not accountable to anybody, and it is reaping the spoils of US ventures all over the globe, from Iraq to Syria. And right now it is doing a horrible job at Hanford. The current estimation for the cost of the cleanup is $677 billion.

Ralph Nader: How much have they spent so far?

Joshua Frank: $170 billion has been spent so far.* So the plan is to vitrify or turn into glass the waste that's in these tanks. That plant is
called the Vit Plant, the vitrification plant. And that plant [construction and operation] right now will run somewhere like $44 billion, the last estimate that I’ve seen.* And right now it’s done nothing. It’s the biggest construction project in the country. They have not vitrified any glass and, in fact, they just started up a test run for vitrification for low-level waste and they were very excited about it. It lasted about a week and it started overheating. This is costing taxpayers billions and billions of dollars and the estimates just keep going up. And the Republicans and Democrats are both wanting more and more funding. But funding isn’t the problem; it’s the lack of technical staff that the Department of Energy doesn’t have out there; it’s a lack of oversight; it’s a lack of action among the unions. We can talk about the money, but I think everybody would agree that any amount of money should be spent to clean this place up. But if it’s lining the pockets of private corporations and the job is not getting done, then something is wrong.

Ralph Nader: The estimate of between $600 and $700 billion by the government to clean it up– billions, we’re talking, not millions–is always a lowball estimate. It always ends up more. This is a staggering figure that can zoom over a trillion dollars. Who are the two senators and the representative from that area, can you name them? And what are they doing in Congress? Are there congressional hearings reviewing this, or everybody wants to try to shove this under the bed and keep delaying and delaying?

Joshua Frank: Well, both of the senators… locally you have some really right-wing representatives that are in Washington and they are in bed with Bechtel, but they’ve been pushing for legislation that will continue to have these profits rolling in and they are absolutely successful at that.

Ralph Nader: Name the senators and representatives, Joshua.

Joshua Frank: Sure. Maria Cantwell is the Democratic senator from Washington that represents the state there. And the other senator, Patty Murray has a history of being involved with Bechtel and she herself has been out to the site a number of times. And each time that these senators go out, they do these little press conferences and they all talk about how successful the cleanup is going. They all talk about how Bechtel is doing such a great job. None of them want to hold Bechtel accountable. The funny thing is, to me, the agency that’s holding anybody accountable is actually the Washington State Environmental Protection Agency. They’re the ones that seem to be going after Bechtel more than any of these politicians are. Even Governor Inslee, who ran for president a couple of years ago and was unsuccessful and is rather progressive on a lot of issues, when it comes to Hanford, is a complete failure. All of the governors on the West Coast should be getting together to work on this issue.

Ralph Nader: Who’s the representative from the eastern state of Washington, which is a huge wheat-growing area?

Joshua Frank: One of the representatives is Congressman Dan Newhouse who represents central Washington; Senator Patty Murray and Dan Newhouse are leading an effort. They signed a letter last week to President Biden asking for more funding. And Murray carries a lot of clout because she sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and Newhouse sits on the House Appropriations Committee and they’re both strong advocates for increasing the budget.

Cold War-era billboard. Photograph Source: DOE – Image N1D0027007 at – Public Domain

Ralph Nader: Joshua, the reason why I want our listeners to know who the key people in Congress are from the State of Washington who have responsibility for the high-risk Hanford Reservation is because the first step here is to have full-throated congressional hearings in the Senate and the House. I mean, you got a potential liability of almost a trillion dollars here, not to mention the potential of a huge disaster the likes of which the United States has never seen, which we’ll discuss in a moment, and you could have Congress put on the public record the full contract between Bechtel and the Department of Energy. You haven’t been able to get that contract, have you?

Joshua Frank: No, I haven’t seen it. And if your listeners want to go after any representative out there, Dan Newhouse is the one that they need to go after. Jaime Herrera also is a representative out there and Cathy Rogers is another representative. But Newhouse has a long history and as the representative who is basically in bed with Bechtel and has for a long time advocated for more funding, and has fought worker-protection legislation.

Ralph Nader: We’re talking with Joshua Frank, author of the new devastating book titled Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America. Why is it untold?

Joshua Frank: The history of Hanford really hasn’t been told from a grassroots people perspective. There’s been a lot of books written from the top down that talk about the scientific and engineering feats that went into developing Hanford. But there hasn’t been a lot of text written about the aftermath–the poisoning of the planet, what it did to the Indigenous communities, what it did to the Japanese. And a perfect example is when you got to Hanford, you can visit Hanford, but you can only really go to the B Reactor, which was the first full-scale plutonium reactor in the world, which I did a tour of. And I’ll tell you, there’s no mention of what Hanford is today. There’s no mention of even what this facility did in producing plutonium that was used in a bomb that was dropped on Japan. The only thing that they talked about is American superiority, American patriotism, and it runs through the veins of most of the people who work out at Hanford. And I wanted to write something that countered that–that looked at the dark side of nuclear technology, that looked at the dark side of our weapons industry and the environmental devastation that it has caused.

Ralph Nader: You certainly did that. You’re a very meticulous reporter with a heavily footnoted 200-and-so-page book. Tell us in some detail the nature of the risk in terms of a disaster, sort of the worst-case scenario, but before you do that, is any more radioactive waste being shipped regularly to Hanford or is this just dealing with all the past radioactive waste?

Joshua Frank: Well, to answer your last question, there’s no more nuclear waste that’s being shipped there and stored. However, there are parts of things, like nuclear submarines, that are laced with radioactivity that are being shipped out there and stored, which just has happened within the last month. So I would argue even though there’s not any high-level radioactive waste being shipped out there, there’s still radioactive materials being shipped to Hanford.

But to answer your other question about the most dire situation that could develop, as I mentioned, Dr. Donald Alexander who is now retired, but is an amazing scientist and an amazing person who explained a lot of details to me over the years. And his concern is that if you have a hydrogen buildup in one of these underground tanks, which they have had happen in the past, and fortunately there was not an explosion. But he envisions it happening–if there was an explosion, there would be radioactive material spread across the country. If you think back to when Mount St. Helens blew there was ash that spread for something like 20,000 square miles and radiation was detected across the globe. Just a couple summers ago, we had massive forest fires in Oregon, the smoke of which was all the way out to the East Coast.

If there was an explosion at Hanford, radioactive material would spread far and wide. And he explained that there would be so much radioactivity that people wouldn’t want to live in cities like Boise, Idaho; Missoula, Montana, and Spokane in Washington. And this isn’t to even mention what it would do to the Columbia River, which is the lifeblood for many farmers, salmon, and commercial fisheries. It would devastate the entire Pacific Northwest, the economy of which would collapse, sending shockwaves across the world and probably crashing the markets globally. And then of course the aftermath, the toll that it would take to clean this thing up. It’s a really dire situation. And a lot of people just aren’t aware of the grave danger that it’s in. You got to know that these tanks are literally bubbling with radioactive sludge and they will be doing that for the next hundreds of thousands of years. Plutonium has a 250,000-year lifespan. So they have to figure out how to keep this stuff safe. And when you have a for-profit corporation handling this mess and really poor government oversight, the risks are great. There’s no other power source. There’s no other energy source that poses this kind of risk-taking about nuclear power. This radioactive waste was produced in nine nuclear reactors. And we still have people promoting nuclear power as an answer, but the same problems exist with nuclear power; it creates nuclear waste. And the situation in Hanford, as far as an explosion goes, is very real. It’s entirely likely that it will happen. It might not happen for 50 years or 100 years, but as the clock keeps ticking, the risks go up.

And then, of course, you have the toll that it’s already taken by billions of gallons of radioactive sludge and chemical waste that have seeped into the groundwater supplies, and that’s leaking towards the Columbia River with plutonium, cesium–all sorts of really nasty stuff. And the workers that are tasked with cleaning it up are constantly coming down with ailments and sicknesses. And the whistleblowers that speak out are often silenced. And if they don’t have the resources to fight back, we never hear about it.

Ralph Nader: Well, is the technology available to minimize the risk? What would be the technology to deal with radioactive waste?

Joshua Frank: Well, it’s pretty interesting. So they don’t have an answer for the two tanks that are leaking right now; they do not know what to do. What they’ve done is essentially covered these things with tarps so when it rains, the rain doesn’t push the radioactive waste further down towards the groundwater supplies. That’s their answer – tarps. They don’t have an answer because it’s a very technical, very laborious process. And, I would argue, it takes more ingenuity in figuring out how to clean this up than it did to produce it in the first place. And you have very, smart, intelligent, well-intentioned people working out there. So this isn’t to minimize the work that they’re doing. However, when they’re wrapped up in a very corrupt system, it’s hard to get things done, and it’s hard to push forward ideas that might not be as profitable to the bottom line for these corporations. And the Department of Energy has been gutted over the years and they simply don’t have the adequate technical staff to manage this gargantuan project.

Ralph Nader: Tell us about some stalwart citizen activity here, in particular, Tom Carpenter, and the person he’s been working with from a Native American tribe, Alfrieda Peters of the Yakima Nation.

Joshua Frank: Well, so Tom, I would argue, is one of the best and most well-renowned advocates for workers, and whistleblowers at Hanford and has been for decades. He recently retired but he’s still involved with the organization that he helped to found which was the Hanford Challenge. They’re based up in Seattle and they really focus on worker protections, and they’ve worked really hard, and they’ve defended a number of whistleblowers, the few that I read about, among them was Walter Tamosaitis and his story was excruciating. He came out and talked about the work environment that he was under and being essentially fired for speaking the truth and won a pretty nice settlement.

So the organization that he helped to found focuses on worker protections. As far as the environmental side goes, the Yakima Nation, which as you mentioned, Russell Jim, an elder who passed in 2018, really was the first who spoke up for Indigenous rights. He led the effort to stop any future radioactive dumping at the Hanford site. And to this day, no major decisions can be made at the federal level without the Yakima Nation and Indigenous voices having a seat at the table. So with the work that he’s done, I think from an Indigenous perspective, no one’s done anything greater than Russell Jim. And his legacy lives on with the Yakima Nation now to this day they’re still working and fighting to have a voice and a seat at the table locally because most of the decisions that are made are not making it publicly; they’re being made behind closed doors. So trying to fight for access and accountability is a difficult process.

Another organization, the Columbia Riverkeeper, focuses on the environmental impact that’s happening along the Columbia River, and they’re strong advocates as well. But outside of the northwest, Ralph, there’s really no awareness. None of the big green environmental groups are even talking about this. Hanford is not even on their radar. And perhaps it’s because it’s a complicated saga; perhaps it’s because they don’t have access or maybe it’s because they all support nuclear power and nuclear technology. I’m not sure. But I would hope that this book can bring a national spotlight to this situation because everybody’s paying for it.

Ralph Nader: Let’s hear it on the maximum risk here. You don’t shy away from technical details. How would an explosion occur?

Joshua Frank: Well, I’m not a nuclear scientist. My understanding is that if you have an enclosed encasement, like a tank, and these tanks are bubbling, so they have to release steam; they’re hot, they’re boiling. There is a cooling mechanism in these tanks; they keep them relatively cool so that they don’t overflow, just like if you’re boiling water on your stove, right? So they do have to release some of that steam heat. In the case of this radioactive soup, it’s producing hydrogen. Hydrogen, if it builds up, can produce a lot of pressure, basically, and explode out the top. This happed, which is one of the reasons that Dr. Alexander is so concerned about it. In the late ’50s this type of explosion happened in the Soviet Union at a facility known as Mayak, which was the sister facility to Hanford. This explosion decimated entire villages. It was, just like Hanford, a covert operation so it wasn’t public. And even when the CIA found out, it didn’t tell the public in the US about it, because of course it would probably cause a little concern for those that lived near nuclear facilities in the US. But the devastation of that was horrific.

Going back to Donald Alexander, who I interviewed, he was sent over to Russia in the ’80s as part of the US delegation to research the damage that Mayak had done. And he was deeply concerned that a similar accident could happen at Hanford where a cooling mechanism could fail, or if the pressure builds up, an explosion could happen, which could cause a potential chain reaction if power were to go down. And this isn’t even… this is just what could potentially happen if things are going correctly and things just malfunction. Just imagine if there was some kind of terrorist attack, or if there was some horrific storm that could happen, or an earthquake. There are a lot of different scenarios that could result in a really horrific event.

Ralph Nader: Well, we’ve ended our conversation here. I hope people will be alert to something like this, especially in the western part of the country. And it’s really a great book that you put out here. It’s very level-headed. It has no histrionics. It’s called Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America. Thank you very much, Joshua, and stay with it.

Joshua Frank: Thanks so much for having me.

*Correction: The amount spent on the clean-up thus far was originally stated to be $40-50 billion, but is actually closer to $170 billion. Also, by some estimates, construction of the Vit Plant will run around $20 billion, with operational costs exceeding $50 billion.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!