The following is an adapted excerpt from the preface of Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America (Haymarket Books, 2022)
If you’re like any number of people I’ve talked to over the last few years, you aren’t really sure what Hanford is all about. Maybe you haven’t even heard of the place; I certainly wouldn’t blame you. It is, after all, off the beaten path. The Hanford Nuclear Site is located in eastern Washington State. It’s far from Seattle, three hours to the Idaho border, on the banks of the Columbia River, and a couple of hundred miles upstream from Portland, Oregon.
I won’t inundate you with all the details just yet; we’ll get to all of that later. But here’s a modest primer: Hanford was home to the US government’s gargantuan plutonium operation. The site churned out nearly all of the radioactive fuel that was used in the country’s nuclear arsenal. Like a ceaseless conveyer belt, Hanford generated plutonium for nearly four long decades, reaching maximum production during the height of the Cold War. Now, however, Hanford no longer produces plutonium. Instead, it’s a sprawling wasteland of radioactive and chemical sewage, a landmass three times larger than Lake Tahoe. It’s also the costliest environmental remediation project the world has ever seen and, arguably, the most contaminated place on the entire planet.
So, why, if this is all true, which it is, have you not heard much about this dismal atomic graveyard? It’s hard not to think that the lack of awareness is intentional. How else to explain its obscurity? You’ve probably heard of Three Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl. Why not Hanford? Outside of the Pacific Northwest, you’re not likely to read much about these wrecked lands, nor are you likely to catch any breaking news about what the hell is going on there. Not only is the site laced with huge amounts of radioactive gunk, but all that waste is also a ticking time bomb that could erupt at any given moment, creating a nuclear Chernobyl-like explosion, resulting in a singular tragedy that would be unlike anything the United States has ever experienced. It’s a real and frightening possibility that I, for one, would rather not fathom.
I first heard of Hanford after I graduated from college in the early 2000s, while working for a nonprofit environmental group. One summer, I was tasked with the job of hiking up hidden, jagged canyons to survey the tributaries of Oregon’s North Fork John Day River in search of salmon habitat. Hanford was just two hours north of where I bunked up for those few weeks in a small Forest Service cabin. Around the campfire, there was often talk that Hanford was a tough, toxic place. A couple of the crew members had even worked there in their younger years. “Don’t bother with it,” I remember one old-timer warning me, “I know people who died from working at Hanford. It’s not worth the trouble.” This guy also hid piles of money under his mattress, so I wasn’t sure what to make of his alarmism. That was the extent of my knowledge back then. I knew Hanford was in bad shape, but didn’t understand how it got that way or why it wasn’t getting any better. Years later, while in graduate school, I read the definitive book on Hanford, On The Home Front, by historian Michele Gerber. I finally began to understand more fully what had transpired. Interestingly, despite her academic chops, Gerber was and remains a genuine Hanford booster. It was clear to me after reading the book that something was undeniably missing from her extensive research, which at times seemed like a revisionist take on Hanford’s very deadly past. I needed to see, feel, and experience it for myself.
Having grown up in Billings, on the dry plains of eastern Montana, I felt on familiar ground when I first visited the town of Richland, Washington—just a stone’s throw from Hanford’s cordoned-off boundary. The town and its landscape reminded me of where I was raised. The topography was similar; the light blue sky was expansive, cloudless, and the air cold and crisp. The Columbia River cuts through Richland much like the great Yellowstone River does in Billings. It dragged me in. Unlike Billings, however, Richland had a different, darker, and more complex identity, and I could sense it. It wasn’t a resource extraction town or an agricultural community like its neighbors Pasco or Kennewick. There were no ski slopes nearby, no fine dining or fancy vacation rentals packed full of well-heeled tourists. It was a town with an entirely different history—a past it is still openly proud of. Richland has heartily embraced the cruel bombs it helped to create, and with them, the destruction they caused. It was an odd thing, considering the thousands of lives these weapons shattered and the ecological ruin left in their wake, much of it in their own backyard. Even so, Richland’s hubris is on display wherever one turns.
The local alehouse, boorishly named Atomic Ale Brewpub, showcases beers like Plutonium Porter, Half-Life Hefeweizen, and even the Atom Bustin’ IPA. The kitschy logo over at the local Richland High School, home of “The Bombers,” bran- dishes a mushroom cloud exploding out of a giant “R.” And the local hardware store, which peddles T-shirts with the high school’s emblem, sells out every time government officials fly in from Washington, DC. A fervent, mystifying patriotism still runs deep in Richland, and there is no mistaking that it’s diehard Republican country. Benton County, where Richland is located, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump twice, most recently by a 20 percent margin over the Biden/Harris ticket. Like other cities and regions across the United States, legislators in these parts have introduced anti-trans bills, and when protesters were bussed in from Portland for a recent an- ti-nuke rally, few, if any, locals joined in the festivities.
However, what sets the place apart from other rural towns in the West that overwhelmingly vote Republican is that Richland is one of the most educated cities in the entire country, leading all others in PhDs per capita. In other ways, too, Richland breaks the mold of what a rural, conservative strong-hold looks like. That is, of course, until you peek under the hood to reveal that this place, with a population of nearly fifty thousand, was born out of the United States’ nuclear ambitions during World War II and is still very much run like a covert military operation, fully dependent on government contracts to keep its economy steaming ahead.
My first visit to Richland was short, but I found myself enthralled. I spent two days roaming around town, drinking my fair share of the Half-Life Hefe, and hiking the White Bluffs Overlook above the Columbia River, which was once home to the Native Wanapum and Nez Perce. Having recently moved back to Oregon from New York, I knew I would return, and did a few years later, with my girlfriend Chelsea. I didn’t share much about my intentions when I coaxed her to come along for a weekend getaway. I remember billing the trip as an exploration of sorts to the edge of Washington, where we would taste the wines of the Walla Walla region, one of the best grape-growing locales in the Pacific Northwest. Lucky for me, Chelsea likes wine. Also lucky for me, Walla Walla is just a short drive over to Hanford. I also conveniently forgot to tell Chelsea that this excursion was scheduled around the public opening of one of Hanford’s oldest and most notorious buildings.
At noon on a chilly Saturday in September 2009, Chelsea and I joined a group of mostly elderly tourists. We packed ourselves onto a small bus in Richland to visit Hanford’s B Reactor, which was designated a National Historic Landmark the year prior. Constructed by DuPont in just eleven months back in the early 1940s, B was the first full-scale plutonium production plant in the world. In the summer of 2009, the Department of Energy, along with the help of the Fluor Corporation, provided regular public tours of the reactor, hoping that one day the facility would turn into a twisted, national atomic museum of sorts—not a war memorial, mind you, but a full-fledged celebration of the Atomic Age. Today, nearly ten thousand tourists visit the B Reactor every year.
“It was the perfect marriage of science and engineering,” one of our guides expressed almost tearfully as we crawled on the bus. “The brave men that built this left us a history we should not ever forget.”
Chelsea glared at me as the man’s voice rang out over the crackling of the speakers. She was surely wondering what she’d signed up for when our little bus parked on a dirt path right next to a creepy, metallic structure that was flying an enormous US flag. At that point, she was also probably contemplating her future with a guy like me. The two-hour tour was fraught with pro-war symbolism, outlandish rhetoric, and crappy, salt-ridden snacks. I was ready for a glass of red wine or that Half-Life Hefe. Michele Gerber, author of On The Home Front, was in attendance that day, clipboard in hand, smiling behind us as some so-and-so explained the details of the reactor. “Thirty buildings and twenty service facilities were part of B operations,” the guy explained, “for the last sixty years, you wouldn’t have been allowed in here. It was top secret!” He was jubilant. But there was no discussion of the disaster Hanford had become over that course of time. There was certainly no moment of silence for the casualties of our nuclear bombs. This was, instead, a time to rejoice in the ingenuity and superiority of the US war machine. Here, in the dark depths of the B Reactor, I did not feel at home or anywhere near it. I felt a sense of disgust and of urgency.
Not long after this trip, Chelsea and I decided to tie the knot. Luckily the B Reactor affair didn’t scare her off. The bachelor weekend that followed our engagement wasn’t so much a last hurrah as it was an exercise in listless meditation. My good friend and colleague. Jeffrey St. Clair, with whom I co-edit CounterPunch, convinced me to stuff myself in the front seat of his inflatable kayak for the adventure of a lifetime, my last taste of freedom. We were to paddle Hanford’s section of the Co- Columbia River. Jeff and I didn’t take part in any buffoonery, despite a cheap margarita or two at a local Mexican restaurant in Richland. Even though this was technically my bachelor party, we weren’t there to party. We were on a mission to complete the fifty-mile stretch of the river in a mere two days. The float didn’t require any real work. It allowed for ample downtime as we let the currents of the mighty river propel us downstream, hugging Hanford’s border the entire way. For hours we gazed in a transcendental state at the tattered landscape and occasional coyote, with a fabulous panoramic view of Hanford’s ominous buildings that sat scattered along the horizon. It was on this sublime river trip that I decided I needed to learn much more about what was happening out there.
While we baked ourselves in the blistering July sun, Jeffrey told me of one courageous and steadfast Hanford advocate, an attorney who lived up in Seattle. “Tom Carpenter runs the very best Hanford watchdog organization in the country, with the caveat that it’s pretty much the only one,” Jeff, who, for decades, has extensively covered regional environmental issues, told me. “He’s sued the pants off of many of Hanford’s villains and stood
up to the DOE and its contractors more times than I can count.”
I had to meet Tom Carpenter. First, I researched his group, Hanford Challenge, and the work they did, which included issuing in-depth reports on all things Hanford, from accidents to misallocation of resources to government fraud and abuse. The group protected whistleblowers and fought to ensure Hanford was a safe place to work. I remember ringing Tom one day while on the environmental beat for Seattle Weekly, asking if he had any scoops for a young, hungry journalist. He gave me a polite “no” but promised he’d get back to me if something came up. I didn’t hear from Tom, but one day, months later, I received a phone call from a feisty union lawyer who told me he had some documents I might be interested in seeing. With funding support from The Nation Institute (now Type Media Center), I ended up writing two long investigative pieces for Seattle Weekly and a series of shorter reports on some of the biggest whistleblowers that Hanford had seen. One was a high-ranking DOE scientist named Donald Alexander. Another was a longtime contractor by the name of Walter Tamosaitis. It was during these two years of research that I learned about what kind of problems Hanford posed, not only to workers or the environment directly around it but to the entire country as well. I spoke to Indigenous activists like Russell Jim, whose lands were stolen to construct this atomic beast, and the lies the US government told along the way. I uncovered a history of hostility toward whistleblowers and the horrible dangers workers faced, and I’ve done my best to share their wild and gut-wrenching stories in this book.
This isn’t to say I have Hanford all figured out. I certainly do not. If anyone tells you they do, they aren’t straight shooters. It’s an immensely complicated saga, and the Department of Energy intentionally makes it difficult to understand what is going on. In a world where there was actual, transparent accountability, the DOE would have a fancy website, database, and fat annual reports that detailed the intricacies of the money being spent on the cleanup. They would include flow charts, pie charts, and details about the endless contractors, the workers they employ, the jobs they carry out, and the science behind their decision-making. There would be frequent congressional testimonies, citizen councils, worker councils, and independent oversight committees. But none of this exists in any tangible form. Sure, we know the big numbers, the amount of cash that contractors like Bechtel score. The costs of the cleanup keep escalating, but the majority of radioactive sludge still sits right where it’s always been. Currently, the DOE estimates the job could run anywhere between $316 and $662 billion. To put it in perspective, their same estimate six years ago was around $110 billion. Today, $2.6 billion is being spent annually. That number, despite threats to cut it, continues to grow. Every few years, Bechtel signs another lucrative contract extension, with a ballooning bill attached, that we, the US tax-payer, write the checks for. Most recently, their work on one of the most important facilities at Hanford was projected to cost $41 billion. Just five years ago, the same work was projected to run only $16 billion. It’s hard to keep up.
Even with these crazy, ever-changing cost projections, we aren’t privy to the inner workings and technicalities of these huge contracts, which no doubt would invite the type of scrutiny they are hoping to avoid. Freedom of Information Act requests that would give journalists and activists insights into these affairs are often denied, with technicalities and issues of national security cited. Or, like my own, are totally ignored.
The more I’ve looked into Hanford, the more I’ve come away frustrated, scratching my head, wondering how it’s all come to this. How could a place be so profitable, so dangerous, and yet so under-reported outside of one or two regional papers? When my Seattle Weekly story of one whistleblower, Walter Tamosaitis, dropped, Rachel Maddow at MSNBC picked up the story. The New York Times followed, tailed by the Los Angeles Times and CNN. But like so much at Hanford, the mainstream spotlight faded as fast as it had appeared. There are reasons for this, no doubt, aside from DOE’s reluctance to let us in. The radio silence also has to do with the sheer volume of the work going on and its inherent complexities. Then there is the other big issue, that pulling back the curtain on the Hanford cha- rade would expose the futility and senselessness not only of the United States’ ugly past but of nuclear technology more generally. If the US public were made aware of the risks posed by Hanford’s radioactive waste, we would surely question the validity of resurrecting the noxious nuclear power industry, which is now being heralded as a key weapon, so to speak, in the fight against climate change. As you will read here, atomic power and nuclear weapons—the mining that is needed, the waste they both produce, the Native lands they destroy, and the people they exploit—go hand in hand. They have a close, symbiotic relationship that is connected at a molecular level. One cannot have an honest discussion about the potential of nuclear power without fully acknowledging the ravages of the Hanford project. This would be tantamount to debating the future of our dying oceans without bringing up the topic of climate change.
My goal with Atomic Days is not to provide you with all the answers or to diminish every aspect of the remediation work currently being carried out at Hanford. Much of it is vitally important. There are incredibly gifted people I know personally who share the same goals many of us have about the site’s remediation and future safety. My intentions are sincere. But I am deeply troubled as well. I am terrified by what a nuclear accident at Hanford would look like and by the lives and lands that such an incident would forever destroy. I am perplexed by the lack of accountability and angered by the enormous profit margins and corporate influence that plague nearly every as- part of the cleanup. I am upset that the DOE is understaffed and the contractors are so mismanaged. I am worried, too, about the workers who are putting their lives on the line every single day, and I am astonished that their unions don’t do more to help out. Yet I am also hopeful: hopeful that, with a bit of knowledge about what is really going on at Hanford—which involves a true reckoning with its dreadful past—a youthful, grassroots movement, not unlike the struggle that rose up to fend off Big Oil at Standing Rock and elsewhere, can arise yet again to demand transparency, accountability, and radical change. The matter is vitally important to the future of the planet, to Hanford’s Indigenous population, and to every US citizen who is paying for it. Because its radioactive threat is not only immediate, it’s long-lasting and of atomic proportions.