The untold story of the Pacific Northwest’s nuclear past

‘Atomic Days’ offers a compelling, fact-packed introduction to the most toxic place in the nation.

 

About three hours west of the Idaho border, on an unassuming patch of gray-green hills and scrubland near the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers, dozens of tanks sit, packed to the gills with bubbling radioactive sludge. Welcome to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, home to an estimated 53 million gallons of radioactive waste, 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater, and 25 million cubic feet of spent nuclear fuel and leftover plutonium. If you’ve never heard of it before, you’re not alone; not too many people seem to know, or care, about the Benton County, Washington, site, despite its historical significance and the modern-day threat it poses.

Luckily, a new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, by the award-winning investigative journalist Joshua Frank, has everything you didn’t know you needed to know about this radioactive minefield nestled in the rugged scablands of the Pacific Northwest.

The Hanford Site opened in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, created to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Material produced at Hanford was used to build Gadget, the first-ever atomic bomb, which the United States Army tested in the Jornada del Muerto Desert in New Mexico in July 1945. Likewise, plutonium manufactured at Hanford was used in the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively.

Following World War II, Hanford continued to churn out most of the radioactive fuel needed for the nation’s nuclear arsenal, which had grown to include an incredible 21,393 warheads by the time plutonium production at the site ended in 1987. But though production ceased more than 30 years ago, the 586-square-mile site remains one of the most toxic places in the world. It is also home to the most expensive environmental cleanup job the world has ever seen. The U.S. Department of Energy has sunk $677 billion into the project so far.

Recovery work at Hanford in 2010. The U.S. Department of Energy has sunk $677 billion into the cleanup project so far.

“Hanford has become the epitome of the U.S. government’s permanent war economy,” writes Frank. Even though Hanford is no longer employed in weapons manufacturing, it continues to produce value for the government contractors hired to clean up the mess. Unfortunately, at Hanford, they’re not doing a very good job.

One contractor has received the lion’s share of funds for the cleanup job: the engineering firm Bechtel. The name might be familiar; Bechtel made headlines for a series of blunders on a major hospital construction project in Basra, which Laura Bush championed during the occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s. A congressional oversight group later found that less than half of Bechtel’s Iraq projects met their original objectives. The firm has become notorious for its questionable track record.

“Hanford has become the epitome of the U.S. government’s permanent war economy.” 

Bechtel has been involved at Hanford since the start of the Manhattan Project, constructing buildings there and at a nuclear lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Since then, among other things, the firm has been responsible for building a massive waste treatment plant to process the millions of gallons of radioactive waste buried in Hanford’s underground tanks. The plant is the largest single construction project in the nation today, with a price tag of $41 billion and climbing.

Frank makes a convincing case for the need for greater oversight of this and the rest of the ongoing cleanup, noting, for example, that completion of the all-important waste treatment plant has already been delayed and that budgets have been exceeded numerous times. All the while, underground tanks full of radioactive material, which were installed back in the 1970s and never built to last, continue to age and sometimes leak. “Nothing embodies the magnitude of (the) bumbling failures at Hanford more than the Waste Treatment Plant,” writes Frank.

Workers survey a container before removing it from a trench where it was buried at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Washington.

Along with Bechtel and the bigwigs at the Department of Energy, Frank introduces readers to a slew of activists who are fighting for better conditions for Hanford workers, greater public scrutiny of the cleanup process, care for the local environment and justice for the Indigenous peoples who have long stewarded the land in southeastern Washington. Characters like Tom Carpenter, senior advisor at the nonprofit watchdog organization Hanford Challenge, Russell Jim, an Indigenous activist and lifelong advocate for the Yakama Nation, and whistleblower Ed Bricker feature as central players in a larger network of organizers seeking a more equitable and transparent future at Hanford. 

Frank treats their struggles as transboundary ones with implications far beyond the Hanford Site and the Western U.S. This is especially true in his framing of the struggle for environmental justice, which he ties to the renewed debate over whether nuclear energy has a place in the clean energy transition. A staunch opponent of nuclear power himself, Frank does not hesitate to voice his opinions on the issues. He allows his sources to shine through as well. It’s a stylistic decision that makes sense given the high stakes involved: the billions in taxpayer dollars spent on a shoddy cleanup job, alleged assassination attempts on whistleblowers, and what Frank sees as a Chernobyl-sized disaster-in-waiting on the banks of the Columbia River.

The strong cast of characters, impassioned narrator and animated prose make for compelling reading from start to finish. Whatever you thought you knew about the United States’ nuclear past, Atomic Days promises new food for thought. It’s a timely and cogent primer on the ongoing but underreported struggle over the nation’s most toxic site.

Marianne Dhenin is a disabled journalist covering social and environmental justice and politics. You can follow her @mariannedhe. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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