The Hanford Site & the Columbia Basin
In the spring of 1943, the federal government seized 670 square miles of land along the Columbia River and began to construct a secret nuclear facility. Fifty thousand men and women came from across the country to work on the project, living in a makeshift trailer camp in the middle of the desert. They built three nuclear reactors there without knowing what they were working on, and in less than eighteen months they produced the plutonium for the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs.
Over the next forty years, the Hanford project continued to produce plutonium, providing the raw material for more than fifty thousand weapons in the nation's nuclear arsenal. Production facilities closed at the end of the Cold War, but millions of gallons of hazardous waste remain at the site. Today, two-thirds of the nation's high-level nuclear waste is stored there, much of it in massive underground tanks that are leaking contaminants into the soil and groundwater. The Department of Energy oversees an environmental cleanup project that costs $2 billion a year and is expected to last for decades.
The Hanford site is surrounded on all sides by agricultural communities. Dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers provide irrigation water that has transformed hundreds of thousands of acres from "desert wasteland" into a productive agricultural region. But agricultural development has come at an environmental cost. The dams have altered natural river systems, and the sagebrush habitat that once covered Eastern Washington has largely disappeared. Ironically, one of the largest remaining blocks of shrub-steppe ecosystem is at the Hanford site. The most contaminated place in the Western hemisphere has become an important habitat reserve for native plants and wildlife.
In recent years, the booming Hanford economy has placed the Tri-Cities among the fastest growing cities in the West. High salaries and affordable real estate have brought new waves of settlers to the area. In order to meet the growing demand for housing, large tracts of sagebrush and agricultural land have been transformed into housing developments. And yet, residents anxiously await a future without the Hanford project. With an end to federal subsidies looming on the horizon, the atomic cities are remaking themselves into a destination for golf courses, wineries, and recreational tourism. A New Western economy is emerging that threatens the old one, as communities struggle with conflicting values.
Featuring interviews with more than two dozen people, Arid Lands takes us into a world of sports fishermen, tattoo artists, housing developers, environmental activists, and radiation scientists living and working in the area. Marked by conflicting perceptions of wilderness and nature, it is a moving and complex essay on a unique landscape of the American West.
John Jones, retired commercial fisherman