Hanford Idyll

At Hanford Nuclear Reservation, wildlife is imagined as thriving, and violent state policy is extended into an indefinitely long future


THE Internet of 2016 plays host to an eye-catching subgenre of general interest articles that breathlessly describe the lives of wild animals at sites of nuclear catastrophe. In the fevered language of headlines, they imagine for the reader the post-human life of the contaminated space, where Fukushima’s wild boars and Chernobyl’s wolves have managed to acclimate to landscapes considered totally unfit for human life.

The fact that predators are mentioned most often as thriving is worth noting: these animals living their unimaginable lives on the radioactive frontier flaunt their easy symbolism, as manifestations of the landscape’s inherent threat to humans that stretches into a future measured in impossibly long half-lives.

Many of these articles cite a study published in the fall of 2015 that describes how some species have flourished in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, even as their populations have decreased in nearby areas. The study’s authors describe the remaining fallout as a relatively minor threat compared to the more pervasive scourge of human habitation. As one scientist quoted in National Geographic explained the phenomenon: “‘nature flourishes when humans are removed from the equation, even after the world’s worst nuclear accident.’” He continued, “we’re not saying the radiation levels are good for the animals; we know it damages their DNA, but human habitation and development of the land are worse for wildlife.”

Today’s civil and nuclear military landscape is experiencing a strange Cold War afterlife, defined by a collapsed vision of a future where the constant production of nuclear weapons was the only possible guarantee of peace. The nuclear age as such is far from over, and who gets to produce and maintain nuclear weapons is still a fundamental issue in international politics. Post-Cold War localized nuclear disasters have shifted the imagination of nuclear danger closer to home. This in turn has prompted an international effort to reimagine a livable future around and alongside the instrumentalized threat of nuclear catastrophe.

This amounts to a gargantuan task of containment — physically, of the nuclear waste left behind from these projects, as well as rhetorically, as governments attempt to present the task of post-nuclear environmental remediation as manageable, and even advantageous. A technology that was once seen as desirable exactly because of its capability to wreak immeasurable destruction has been repackaged as nonthreatening, with finite, knowable risks, and even as a source of environmental salvation.

THE Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington is one of many sites in the United States’ nuclear program where this logic has structured a large-scale cleanup effort. The stretch of land on the banks of the Columbia River was judged by General Leslie R. Groves of the Manhattan project in 1942 as appropriately remote from human settlements. (In fact, the 586 square miles were part of land that had been designated by treaty for the use of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Yakama Nation, and the Nez Perce Tribe in 1855.) Construction began in March 1943, and the “B” reactor, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, first produced plutonium in November of 1944. The site’s production capacity increased rapidly from there, and it supplied the plutonium for many early nuclear tests, as well as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

After the war, Hanford expanded its capacity as a center of the military’s nuclear project. In 1956, a missile base was built on Rattlesnake Mountain, a sacred site for several local tribes, and by the 1960s the site was home to nine nuclear reactors. Those reactors began to age beyond usefulness, and most were decommissioned in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Department of Energy assumed control of the site in 1977. Three decades of intensive nuclear production had taken a toll on the land; the waters of the Columbia River, which had been used in the operation of the reactors, had registered elevated levels of radiation 200 miles downstream, and airborne fallout was absorbed into agricultural land and the bodies of livestock.

As the Cold War came to an end, the Department of Energy was faced with the task of imagining a peaceful future for a site that was built to produce fuel for a total, endless war. The cleanup effort began in 1988, with responsibility shared by the EPA, the Department of Energy and the Washington Department of Ecology. The project’s budget climbed steadily — early estimates set $1 billion as the total cost, but that has expanded to $14 billion.

In summer 2000, in the last months of the Clinton administration, the Hanford Reach National Monument was created from nearly 200 thousand acres of land that once served as a security buffer for the site. Land that was once meant to protect humans from radiation (and to protect Hanford from outside interference) is now itself protected from development and agriculture, part of an edenic landscape imagined into the future.

The Reach is presented as an invaluable resource for those who want to study nature and those who want to see the area as it might have looked seventy years ago. The “unique and fortuitous circumstances,” as the establishment of the Nuclear Reservation is billed, have allowed for the preservation of the area’s shrub-steppe vegetation, which has been mostly destroyed by development in other areas. The area’s biodiversity is assured first of all not by its status as a protected area, but by the fact that its elevated levels of radiation are framed as uniquely threatening to humans. This may be a side effect of the way the suffering of non-human species is measured and cared about. Since the way animals experience pain is still seen as up for debate, the non-human experience of life on the Hanford Reach National Monument is simply inaccessible. Animals can register suffering by leaving or not reproducing; in nearly all other cases they are understood as thriving.

This managed wilderness teeming with untroubled animal life is held up as an implicit justification of hundreds of years of aggressive military policy. “The history of the Hanford Reach is the history and fulfillment of ‘Manifest Destiny,’” declares the Hanford Reach information page of the Fish & Wildlife Service’s website. “At its essence, the ‘progress’ of the atomic age helped to turn the landscape back in time, at least on the borderlands that make up the Monument.” Resurrecting Manifest Destiny as the ideological forbear of the Hanford Reach extends the project’s implicit purpose far beyond environmental remediation. It justifies all government action on the territory of Hanford and surrounding areas from the beginning of the United States’ presence in the area, including the contested treaty of 1855 and the ongoing struggle for Native American sovereignty on the reservation established by that treaty. By folding that remediation into a universally understood ‘progress’ and speaking of it in terms of a return to an earlier state of wholeness, the violent implications of nuclear technology are referenced and quickly put to rest. The strategic necessity of maintaining (and occasionally deploying) nuclear weapons, long portrayed as unfortunate but unavoidable in the context of international politics, is thus extended inward, onto the territory it was meant to protect. Its catastrophically destructive potential, the logic seems to go, can when placed in sufficiently capable hands not only be managed but targeted to achieve a speedy return to pristine nature, to the utopia that haunts environmental politics. The state is imagined into eternity, as the ideal steward of its own engineered idyll, where all risk is finite and manageable.

The act of political imagination that undergirds remediation efforts at Hanford is nuanced and replete, and takes for granted the presence of humans far into the future. In her work on the Hanford site, Shannon Cram describes the Department of Energy’s classification of risk of exposure to radiation by eight human types: Subsistence Farmer, Avid Angler, Avid Hunter, Casual User, Non-Resident Tribal Member, Industrial Commercial Worker, Resident Monument Worker, and Native American Resident. The apparent health of the Reach’s animals suggests a way of imagining a livable human future on radioactive land, one where risk and threat of pain are de-historicized and managed through exacting statistical understandings of every aspect of a person’s interaction with their environment. Risk for each of these types takes into account not only the amount of time they might spend on the Monument, but the precise volume and type of food they might eat, the amount of air they might breathe. Possible risks are calculated to the year 2150, based, according to the report, on expectations of safe storage of waste and the institution’s expectation of its own survival.

The timescale of the nuclear half-life forces the state to imagine itself into a deep future, positing long periods of peace and political stability that will allow for the “natural” process of radioactive decay and environmental renewal. Not only are the conditions for this process without historical precedent, they are a far cry from the logic of contingency and emergency management that so often guide political decision-making.

It also obscures the fact that in this case, emergency management is in fact the first order of business. Since April 28th, 50 workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington State have sought treatment for exposure to chemical vapors. Their symptoms include respiratory problems, high blood pressure, and nausea. All of these workers are employed in the maintenance of the site’s “tank farms,” where 177 50,000-1,000,000-gallon tanks store radioactive waste from the site’s long history as a producer of nuclear fuel. Waste leaks have been a chronic problem at Hanford. 149 single shell storage tanks were built in the first two decades of the site’s operations to contain the waste from plutonium production until a more permanent solution could be found. Nearly 70 have leaked, and some of this waste has reached the groundwater. There are also 28 double shell tanks, which enclose their contents in two layers of carbon steel enclosed in concrete. These were built in the 1970s and 1980s, though it was acknowledged at the time that this too was a temporary solution to the problem of leaking and a chronic deficiency of storage space. Today, the waste remains in the tanks while the struggle for a more permanent solution continues.

The cleanup effort has its own uncertain timescale. In 1998, a British company, British Nuclear Fuels Unlimited, was contracted to vitrify the waste, a process that involves combining it with other materials to turn it into a more stable glass, which can be stored underground for the thousands of years required for radioactive isotopes to degrade. Vitrification promises an inherent stability that other methods of storing nuclear waste lack.

But the prospect of actually using it to control the ongoing problem of the site’s millions of gallons of waste in its aging underground tanks seems ever more distant. Although the process has been used successfully elsewhere, Hanford’s “Vit Plant” would be the largest such facility in the world. Two years after the first contract was awarded, the project’s projected costs had more than doubled to $15.2 billion, and the Department of Energy transferred the project to Bechtel, a construction company that previously worked on the Hoover Dam and the London Underground. The company started construction on the plant before the plans had been finished, aiming to complete the work as they went as a way of saving time and money. At that time, the vitrification plant was expected to be up and running in eight years. Since then, this approach has been called into question as unsafe and impractical; the waste must be analyzed before it is vitrified, and the complex history of Hanford is evident in the chemical complexity of the radioactive solids, liquids, and sludge it has left behind. The process of removing the waste from the tanks through a series of pipes is a delicate one, and the risks of explosion and contamination are real. In 2015, the Department of Energy set a 2039 deadline for the plant to be fully operational, with measures in place to extend this deadline if necessary.

Hanford’s messy, uncertain present sits uneasily with the curious pastoralism of its imagined future, where the happy animal vanguard of the present makes way for the subsistence farmers and daytrippers, unworriedly breathing their statistically allotted cubic meters of air. The presence of radioactive waste might dissolve the boundaries between animal and human in the face of a shared threat. Instead, Hanford’s new life as wilderness seems to rest on the idea of a fundamental gulf between nature and humans, whose differential relationships to the nuclear build-up are likewise naturalized and effaced. The human engineers of the nuclear age, uniquely able to destroy the environment, can by the same means save it; descriptions of natural cycles of decay and renewal are deployed to erase and extend a long legacy of destructive policy. We are encouraged to think of the future they are making with complacent hope: if nature’s ability to renew itself has not been fundamentally disrupted by the nuclear age, we can be imagined back into the landscape without a reevaluation of the past, a redesign of the present or a new imagination of the future.