Nuclear waste has been leaking into the Columbia River for my entire life, and I recently turned 60. So when I read the BBC News story about new leaks from radioactive waste tanks on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, I wondered what was new about it. Reviewing the BBC article, what’s new is what’s left out of the story–the fact that enormous amounts of waste are already in the groundwater and contaminating the salmon and public water supplies of the communities all along the river on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation contains 60% of the highly radioactive and chemical waste in the United States, and one million gallons of that waste has already leaked into the groundwater. That groundwater is moving into the Columbia River, where one million people live downstream in communities that rely on the river as the source for their municipal water supply. American Scientist has the details.
In 2006, Yakama Nation pursued a Superfund claim to restore the environment of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which was built by the U.S. Government on Yakama territory, where they traditionally fished for salmon. This talk by Russell Jim is related to Hanford. Russell Jim is a fellow and board member of the Center for World Indigenous Studies where I serve as an associate scholar, and is in charge of the negotiations between the Yakama Indian Nation and the U.S. Government to clean up Hanford, the largest Superfund site in the country.
Prior to Chernobyl, Hanford was the most contaminated site on earth. Readers and historians might enjoy this guest article by my friend Juli in Atlanta. We both grew up next to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington state, and her father was a scientist there.
Meanwhile, while Governor Inslee of Washington State reassures the public that there is no current risk to human health from the newly discovered leaks, his reassurance should be placed in context. Human health for the foreseeable future is in jeopardy along the Columbia from earlier leaks and dumps that have been ongoing for six decades. The fact that — unlike the new leaks — the radioactive contamination already underway cannot be contained, managed or avoided by Columbia River communities, is perhaps too big a story for the public to wrap their minds around. Then again, how many people now live in Chernobyl?