Part 3 : Hanford’s Dirty Secret- “Ways of Knowing and Radiation Exposure”


A few months ago, in a two-part blog series, we explored the secret suffering of communities at Hanford – known as the most toxic place in the United States- and the status of cleanup of 56 million gallons of nuclear waste at the Hanford Site. The site has been called “an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen.” In part 3, we look at a workshop that explores the ways in which the communities exposed to radiation perceive it and the recent reduction in funding for cleaning up Hanford.

Workshop explores how impacted communities perceive radiation exposure and contamination

Earlier this year, on 19-21 June 2019, Dr Jacob Hamblin and ICAN supporter Dr Linda Marie Richards organized an interdisciplinary international academic workshop, “Ways of Knowing and Radiation Exposure” at Oregon State University (OSU) to examine how individuals and communities in Hanford comprehend radiation exposure.

Communities living close to the site continue to pay the price for the United States’ Cold War legacy; they have to live with countless medical crisis and years of environmental damage from radiation exposure. Yet the ways of assessing, investigating, and ultimately understanding human and environmental contamination have historically differed among stakeholder groups. During the workshop, part of the three-year National Science Foundation Award research project “Reconstructing Nuclear Environments and the Hanford Downwinders Case,” attendees and presenters explored the way individuals and communities in Hanford understand radiation’s effects on health, livelihood, and society as a whole, and what role the scientific community and the government have played in shaping those perceptions.

According to Oregon State undergraduate Mahal Miles – who attended the workshop as part of an Honors College Center for the Humanities Summer Internship -  some of the most powerful conversations revolved around:

  • The challenge to make the invisible effects of radiation visible without giving the scientific community sole influence over the ‘ways of knowing’: from a citizen’s standpoint, grappling with the experience of -and difficulty communicating- the effects of radiation to cultivate community action is further aggravated by a lack of full comprehension and consent.

  • The political interests of the scientific community, and scientists as individuals. Scientists, such as nuclear physicists, are subject to political interests, which blur the line between professional and personal integrity. Academics are cautioned in seeing a binary between those harmed and scientists. These two sides are often described as in an expert versus non-expert battle, which in turn, strains relations between both parties. However, there is a much more permeable barrier between those who are scientists and those who are not. How these groups interact to create new relationships, types of communicative power and dynamics deserve scrutiny.

  • The historical trend of façade when it comes to acknowledging and  “knowing” radiation exposure through government response and foreign relations. Government entities invested in nuclear sciences have traditionally communicated reassurances through a rhetoric of “…couldn’t happen here!” in response to widely publicized nuclear disasters.

  • For those harmed by radiation- be it from the highly broadcasted events to those unethically dismissed – there is a shared struggle to receive holistic education and reasonable compensation from governing bodies.

The workshop featured sixteen presenters, ranging from academics living as far away as Tasmania (Australia) to an award-winning poet and a Hanford Downwinder. It also featured Downwinder accounts specific to the Hanford nuclear production complex, as well as insight to the nuclear history collections residing in OSU’s SCARC. A public event by poet Kathleen Flenniken and Hanford Downwinder Pat Hoover made the story of contamination accessible using poetry and prose, which was framed with introductory remarks by indigenous educator Dr. Allison Davis White Eyes.

“It is essential,“ said Richards, “to create space in academia for sharing knowledge about the various ways of comprehending radiation exposure. Our workshop displayed the true value and function of scholarship in asking questions about contamination and consequences of nuclear weapons.”

Reduced budget for Hanford Site clean up

Meanwhile, the current US administration has announced plans to cut Hanford’s funding by $416 million even though the crucial cleanup at Hanford needs more funding and not less. Hanford’s long-term plan is the Waste Treatment Plant. It would turn liquid waste, the most dangerous waste at Hanford, into solid bars that would be buried at an undetermined site. A plant like this has never been developed and Hanford is touted as an innovator in environmental remediation. However, construction will cost $20 billion, while operational costs could reach an additional $60 billion USD. The plant is expensive and, by a Hanford employee’s own admissions, puts both workers and the local communities at an even greater risk. Meanwhile, the US administration plans on downgrading the threat levels of some radioactive waste to save $40 billion on clean up. This aims to speed up the clean-up process at Hanford and make it seem cheaper but has been criticized for not actually carrying out the clean-up part.

The affected communities at Hanford continue to face the brunt of US Cold-War nuclear weapons legacy by battling severe health problems, lack of government support and seemingly no path forward from the complex clean-up plans at Hanford. That’s why initiatives like the “Ways of Knowing and Radiation Exposure” workshop are such an important platform that empowers these communities to keep fighting for justice.