Leakers: They sound like something out of the Walking Dead. And, in some frightening version of the future, they could be. “Leakers” are what the people who work at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation call the nuclear waste storage tanks that have been leaking. According to Crosscut journalist John Stang, there have now been 69 confirmed leakers at Hanford, including six currently believed to be leaking. About three to six gallons per tank per day of radioactive waste, leaking into the ground, 7 to 10 miles from the Columbia River: especially unnerving now that, thanks to the federal sequester, Hanford may have to put the brakes on its efforts to stop the leakers.
What a poster-child the Leakers are for everything that’s wrong with the blunt instrument, across-the-board, Sequester approach to budget cutting: more than half the staff at Hanford could be furloughed or laid off on April 1st. Once the shining star of our cold war defenses; Hanford is now the dark star of the world’s most delicate, most important cleanup dilemma: what to do with all the waste we generated building all those warheads? And now we’re going to lay off the people who are actually willing and–God willing–able to figure this stuff out?
Governor Inslee says he’s on it. He told longtime Hanford reporter Anna King he views the leaking tanks as a problem as “urgent as if they were spilling out into his front lawn.” But Hanford is much, much more than a Washington state problem. Just ask New Mexico, where the Feds plan to ship some of the Hanford waste. There are conservationists there who are pretty upset about that plan, and who can blame them? Especially with these new Leakers stalking the news?
Our state’s poet laureate, Kathleen Flenniken, has written a chilling, beautiful book of poems about Hanford called Plume. Flenniken grew up there during the Cold War years. Her dad was a Hanford engineer. The poems are a stark testament to how far we as a country will go in demanding patriotism. At Hanford, in the 1940s, fifties, sixties, seventies, the ultimate patriotic act was silence. Silence about what was being produced there—how much, how powerful, how dangerous; silence about known levels of radioactivity in fish, milk, soil and the bodies of the people who worked on the site. Silence about consequences. About cancer. About death.
Even children were called to the cause of silent patriotism, when their own radiation levels were calculated by MRI-like scanners. In a poem titled “Whole-body Counter, Marcus Whitman Elementary,” Flenniken writes:
“and the machine had taken me in
like a spaceship and I moved
slow as the sun through the chamber’s
smooth steel sky.
I shut my eyes again and pledged
to be still; so proud to be
a girl America could count on.”
Hanford workers paid a high price for the silent loyalty of those years. Now, a new generation is being asked to figure out what to do with what they left behind: 56 million gallons of nuclear waste, much of it so highly toxic it can only be handled by remote control.
In a poem titled “The Cold War,” Flenniken concludes:
“We called it the arms race
and there were two sides.
It was simple.”
But now it’s not. Cleanup never is.
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Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.