Paddling the Hanford Reach with Columbia River Keeper

I was recently invited to tag along as an artist-in-residence/photographer for the Columbia River Keeper’s annual kayak/paddle trip down the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River.  The Reach is the river’s last remaining stretch of free-flowing current and runs right by the decommissioned Hanford Nuclear Reservation– a WWII/Cold War reactor where plutonium for most of the United States’ nuclear arsenal was processed.  It is a wild, strange place to say the least.

CRK Conservation Director Dan Serres preps us before our voyage

“In January 1943, Hanford was chosen as a site for the government’s top-secret Manhattan Project. The mission was to produce plutonium for the nuclear bomb. It was selected because of its remoteness, its abundant water for reactor cooling, and its plentiful electricity from hydroelectric dams. In the spring of 1943, 1,200 residents were evacuated from the towns of Hanford, White Bluffs, and Richland. Access was denied to Native Americans who had historically used the lands for hunting, food gathering and religious purposes. The world’s first three plutonium production reactors were quickly built with a work force of 51,000. Just 27 months after construction started, Hanford-produced plutonium provided the explosive charge for the world’s first nuclear detonation in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Not long after, the Nagasaki bomb was powered by concentrated plutonium manufactured at Hanford.”

“Government demand for plutonium continued, and by 1964, nine plutonium production reactors were operating at Hanford discharging their deadly wastes directly into the Columbia River. Chemical and radioactive discharges contaminated the soil, water and air with little care for containment and little knowledge of the dangers of the wastes being produced. At least once, radioactive materials were discharged into the air for pur-poses of experimentation on the American public. In 1949, the famous Green Run released over 5,500 curies of iodine-131 in one day, as well as other fission products (by comparison, Three Mile Island released 15-24 curies). With the help of the wind, these dangerous radioactive particles were distributed over much of Washington and Oregon. In the year 1945 alone, 340,000 curies of iodine-131 were emitted to the air from Hanford. Today, the government is studying the link between thyroid disease and some of these releases.”

“The Columbia River received much larger amounts of radionuclides. In 1954 alone, it was estimated almost 3 million curies (2,913,000) were released into the Columbia. (Doc.#HW32809). Large releases to the River continued for more than thirty years, According to the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project (HEDR), 66 million curies of radiation were released to the river. Discharges from waste sites to the groundwater continue today.”

   there are 5 river front reactors along the reach, all in different stages of shut-down

“Today, the official mission at the Hanford site is environmental restoration. It is called clean-up, but the word is misleading. The best we can hope for is to contain most of the deadly wastes from this massively contaminated site, preventing them from further contaminating the Columbia River. What is being termed “clean-up” is an overwhelmingly difficult job that will take an estimated one hundred billion taxpayer dollars and more than 30 years to accomplish. Columbia Riverkeeper (CRK) has been monitoring cleanup activities at Hanford since 1989 and has seen hopeful changes as a result of public participation and an incorporation of public values. To protect the future of the Columbia River we need your help! The first step is to become knowledgeable.”

Ironically, the secrecy (and later worry of contamination) of the Hanford Nuclear Site has preserved thousands of acres for fish and wildlife and protected some of the most beautiful landscapes in the Northwest from development.  It is confusing to observe an area so visually stunning that is also so polluted- it challenges one’s understanding and reminds us how independent our various senses of perception are from each other…  poisonous beauty.

Hats off to CRK for their fight to clean-up and protect the Columbia River, and a big thanks for inviting me to tag along.

(quoted text if from the CRK website)

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