At Atomic Ale Brewpub & Eatery in Richland, Wash., you can feast on a “Reactor Core” pizza, made with “spicy nuclear butter,” wash it down with a Half-Life Hefeweizen or an Atomic Amber, and finish your meal with Plutonium Porter Chocolate Containment Cake. Later you might have at some pins at Atomic Bowl, the “Home of Nuclear Bowling,” or catch a Richland High School football game, the team’s name – Bombers – looming over the field, a mushroom cloud logo on the scoreboard.
The town’s pervasive dark humor alludes to a darker past – and a troubling, radioactive present. The plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki came from what’s known today as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, around which Richland grew and thrived. During the Cold War, Hanford churned out plutonium for our nuclear arsenal. Then the Soviet threat ended, and the residents in this corner of eastern Washington were left with what is routinely called the most toxic place in the Western Hemisphere.
Today, it is not a Soviet missile that threatens this once-pristine high desert. If disaster strikes Richland, it will be because the federal government (namely, the Department of Energy) allowed 56 million gallons of radioactive waste to fester in this sandy soil, where some say it is rife for an explosion. And, critics charge, the DOE has watched its prime contractor on the site, Bechtel, grossly overcharge the American public for a waste-treatment plant so poorly built that, once it’s finished (if it ever gets finished), feeding nuclear material through it could cause a catastrophe.
A poster from the recent Occupy Portland protests called Hanford “North America’s Fukushima.” That isn’t just left-wing, anti-corporate fear mongering – a catastrophic accident involving radioactive waste scares the two most prominent Hanford whistle-blowers, nuclear engineer Walter L. Tamosaitis, fired from the site last month, and Donna Busche, a nuclear safety compliance officer who remains employed by URS, a Hanford subcontractor, even as her legal complaints – which include allegations of everything from pressure to downplay safety concerns to sexual harassment – proceed. Unprompted, Busche told Newsweek she is worried about “when ‘Fukushima Day’ hits.”
Last year, nuclear scientist Donald H. Alexander, formerly of the DOE, likened Hanford to the doomed 1986 Challenger mission, a disaster arising from an excess of confidence.
Speaking of the cosmos: Some have suggested we launch our nuclear waste into space, to be swallowed by the sun. That may sound insane, but spend a little time sorting through the Hanford morass, and just about anything other than the status quo will seem appealing.
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