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Understanding Hanford: How Did We Get Here?

Jan 5, 2024

A farmer, seeking refuge from post-World War I turmoil in Germany, settles into a tranquil life on a serene riverfront farm. A government official approaches him with an eviction letter in hand. Meanwhile, a bustling town emerges from the shadows of the Great Depression, only for its residents to face an abrupt eviction, given a mere month to vacate with little compensation. A government project, located within three covert sites throughout the United States, racing against time to bring into existence a theoretical concept. A ticking clock, a secret bomb, the end of a World War, an escalating arms race, and the surge in plutonium production. The subsequent decommissioning and the legacy waste buried underground.

If you read that in Don LaFontaine’s voice, it might just sound like a potential box office hit—however, this is not a Hollywood story script in a made-up land far, far away—this story is ours.

The story of Hanford has all the makings of an action-packed thriller—and sure, “Oppenheimer” was great, however, I can’t help but feel a little bit like Mike Wazowski in “Monsters Inc.” when their company commercial airs and the logo overshadows poor Mike’s already modest role.

While we shared in that collective moment of “I’M ON TV!” Hanford has a story of its own that is just as deserving as the Oppenheimer story.

Nevertheless, the Hanford story usually stops at decommissioning—if it even makes it that far. And often, this current chapter is looked upon with fear or snubbed noses.

Recently, I saw a sign on the window of a business in Seattle that read “We all live downriver from Hanford. Together we can change Hanford’s toxic legacy”.  As the community that is adjacent to, and immediately downstream of Hanford, the Tri-Cities has a uniquely vested interest in its successful cleanup.  It is our family members, friends and neighbors who go to work at Hanford every day, and it is our job to change the “toxic” legacy.  But I’ll venture a step further, and argue we do that by embracing our community’s legacy to shape it into a cleaner, brighter future.

It all starts with the narrative.

The topic of cleanup is, well, complex, and it’s easy to make it sound scary. With the current estimated cost for cleanup in the hundreds of billions with several decades left to go, it’s also overwhelming.

So, we start by telling our story. And it’s a good one.

Hanford cleanup is an untold tale deserving of attention, even if the conversation is harder to be had. While the tale of triumph and pride often stops at decommissioning; Hanford’s legacy is so much deeper than plutonium. So, rather than label this chapter as “toxic” I encourage you to lean into the triumphs, innovations, and the commitment that this community earned its reputation for, won wars with, and its continued contributions  through advancements in science, STEM-related workforce opportunities, and other diverse fields.

Describing our legacy as “toxic” certainly grabs people’s attention, but it’s crucial to recognize our influence. Successful cleanup efforts improve the site’s reputation, earning positive recognition locally and beyond, pulling at the heartstrings (well, purse strings) of those in Congress. This positive perception attracts more funding, fueling more efficient cleanup operations and further enhancing overall site performance—which is ultimately the collective end goal for everyone with an opinion about Hanford.

The narrative offers a continuous loop of improvement and demonstrates how effective cleanup efforts lead to increased public support and financial backing.

By starting with the telling of Hanford’s story, our community can propel itself towards solutions, whether it’s cleanup, climate, or clean energy related, because this is the place.

To help share our story and breakdown the current and future issues and events at Hanford, join us over on YouTube for a miniseries about Understanding Hanford and “How We Got Here”. Together, the community has the power to redefine Hanford’s legacy from just “toxic waste” and contribute to a positive and sustainable future. We shape our legacy by embracing our past, celebrating the triumphs and innovations, and use that to propel us toward solutions for the future.  

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