Magazine article The Christian Century

Nuclear Fallout: A Lethal Legacy

Magazine article The Christian Century

Nuclear Fallout: A Lethal Legacy

Article excerpt

HIS EXACT WORDS are lost to memory, but the tone and essence of his response have stayed with me for almost a decade. We were in Hanford, Washington, talking with the representative of a company that wanted the contract to build the final resting place for all of the nation's nuclear waste. The question: Why should we believe you when you say Hartford is a safe location for nuclear waste? The response: "Because we are scientists."

That assertion suggested the arrogance not so much of that individual as of an approach that is certain it has privileged access to the truth--so certain that it need not worry much about moral responsibility. The Hartford site was one of the finalists for waste disposal, despite data showing that the basalt rock in the region was too porous and the site too close to the Columbia River. Hanford made the finals not because the scientific data were so favorable but because federal officials knew the Hanford region is deeply supportive Of the nuclear cause. Politics, not science, was at work.

Meanwhile, Hanford has been faced with another waste issue--the massive cleanup of the nuclear waste that was produced over the 50 years during which Hanford has been one of five major stops on the nuclear weapons processing chain (Fernald, Ohio; Savannah River, Georgia; Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Rocky Flats, Colorado, were the others). Estimates of the cost to dean up Hanford range as high as $57 billion over the next 30 years. The clean up, ironically, will be a boost to the area's economy.

The communities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick which surround the 570-square-mile Hanford facility are largely pro-nuclear because they became boom towns when the area was first identified in 1943 as an ideal location for the processing of fuel for the nuclear bomb. Those were glory days for these once sleepy communities along the Columbia Riven Richland, for example, grew from 200 to 15,000 residents between 1943 and August 1945 when fuel processed at Hanford was used to fire the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

There were few doubters at first. But a minority of residents, including some journalists and clergy, harbored early suspicions that weapons development had its ominous side. Journalist Michael D'Antonio has examined the development of these concerns in Atomic Harvest: Hanford, and the Lethal. Toll of America's Nuclear Arsenal (Crown, 1993), a tale of secrecy and deceit employed by federal officials who were driven first by the need to create the nuclear bomb before it was developed by Germany and then by the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union.

D'Antonio avoids simplistic antinuclear rhetoric. He acknowledges that scientists and line workers at Hanford began production of plutonium--the trigger ingredient derived from uranium that produces nuclear power and fires nuclear weapons-- before the full ramifications of its side affects and its terrible destructive power were understood. And he is particularly sympathetic to Energy Department official Michael Lawrence who came to Hanford in 1984 just as that location was losing its luster as a nuclear processing facility and emerging as a finalist as a permanent waste site.

Lawrence shared the conviction of many in the Energy Department and the nuclear community that plutonium was safe so long as it was carefully contained. Determined to make that case to the residents of Washington, Lawrence was surprised to encounter a group of well-informed antinuclear activists. William Harper Houff, pastor of Washington Unitarian Church in Spokane, was one of those activists described by D'Antonio as carrying "the burden of conscience" brought on by an intensive study of radiation and nuclear technology. While residents and scientists in the Tri-City area were pushing to revive their economy by bringing the permanent waste site to Hanford, Houff preached what became for him a defining sermon in the antinuclear effort: "We need to admit that we don't know what we are doing. …

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