Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America

By Joshua Frank. Haymarket Books, 2022; 258 pages.

Joshua Frank’s detailed and compelling account of the Hanford site reveals the consequences of America’s obsession with nuclear reactors, plutonium and atom bombs. The feverish quest to build the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by the Cold War arms race, disproportionately impacted Indigenous peoples and caused widespread contamination of lands and waters with radioactive waste.

Reprocessing of irradiated reactor fuel to extract plutonium is a dangerous business. Huge quantities of liquid reprocessing wastes remain in leaky tanks at Hanford. A major accident involving one of these tanks could result in public radiation exposures equivalent to the fallout from a nuclear weapons explosion.

This possibility is not hypothetical. In September 1957, a tank containing 80 tonnes of plutonium reprocessing wastes exploded at Hanford’s sister facility, the Mayak plant near the city of Chelyabinsk in central Russia. A cloud of soot and steam shot up a half mile into the air, spreading radioactive particles over an area the size of Nova Scotia. Ten thousand peasant farmers were evacuated, their livestock slaughtered, and their crops destroyed, leaving behind a permanent atomic wasteland.

When dissident Soviet scientist Zhores Medvedev wrote about this disaster in 1976, some senior western officials dismissed his account. Russian officials did not formally admit to the Mayak disaster until 1990. According to Frank, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency knew what had happened: In 1960, U-2 spy pilot Gary Powers was shot down trying to photograph the extent of the devastation. But the CIA kept the accident a secret, hoping to avoid adverse consequences for the US nuclear industry.

The ongoing failure to deal with 177 tanks of plutonium reprocessing wastes at Hanford is a central theme in Atomic Days. Frank also describes incidents such as the 2017 collapse of PUREX Storage Tunnel #1, built of dirt and wood (“PUREX” stands for “Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant”). After the cave-in, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) simply filled the hole with 50 truckloads of dirt and a plastic cover.

As explained in Atomic Days, DOE insistence on using private contractors to deal with the mess at Hanford means that deadlines are consistently missed, upper-level managers come and go at a dizzying pace, employees struggle to cope with dangerous conditions, and whistleblowers are dismissed: “The DOE’s reliance on private contractors to get the job done, the immense profit incentive for these large companies to rush to meet deadlines, the lack of government expertise and oversight, and the secrecy often surrounding the cleanup all create more problems than they fix.”

For years, efforts were made to “grout” the radioactive high-level liquid tank wastes into a concrete-like form. These efforts were finally abandoned. The current plan involves “vitrification”, turning the reprocessing wastes into a glass-like solid. Construction of a vitrification plant began in 2002, but the latest estimate is that it won’t be fully operational until 2036, at an estimated cost of 41 billion dollars.

Frank describes how a long-time, dedicated engineer at the Hanford site, Dr. Walter Tamosaitis, was demoted in 2010 for speaking out about problems with the design of the vitrification plant. He sued his employer, Bechtel, and in 2015 reached a $4.1 million settlement. Tamosaitis says “Bechtel is the best at playing the game of getting the most taxpayer money to address technical issues that are their responsibility.” Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge — a citizens’ group dedicated to human health and safety, accountability, and a sustainable environmental legacy — says “Bechtel, by all accounts and purposes, has done an absolutely miserable job.”

Canadians should pay attention to what’s going on at Hanford. In 2015, the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper implemented the same private contracting model used by the DOE. Many of the officials now responsible for radioactive clean-up in Canada formerly worked for the DOE. Reactor operations, plutonium reprocessing and other activities at the federal government’s nuclear sites—the main ones being Ontario’s Chalk River Laboratories and Manitoba’s Whiteshell Laboratories—have left a legacy of environmental contamination next to major waterways such as the Ottawa and Winnipeg Rivers. Environmental remediation costs are currently estimated at 16 billion dollars.

Furthermore, to create Canada’s nuclear sites, just as at Hanford, Indigenous peoples were displaced from their traditional territories. Atomic Days documents the disproportionate impacts of Hanford on the Yakama Nation. In 1949, Hanford officials deliberately released large amounts of iodine-131, resulting in “high incidence of thyroid tumors and cancers” in downwind populations, according to Dr. Helen Caldicott. The Yakama Nation also lost their traditional salmon harvesting site when the Wy-Am rapids were flooded for the completion of the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River in 1958, providing electric power to operate the Hanford site.

Until his death in 2018, Russell Jim led the Yakama Nation’s Environmental Remediation and Waste Management Program. In testimony before a congressional committee in 1987 Jim spoke of “forty years of both accidental and intentional releases of radioactivity to the earth, the atmosphere, and the waters that are sacred to the Yakama Nation.” He added that the DOE “put liquid, high-level wastes in single-shell tanks just below the surface of the ground… only to have many of those tanks leak their deadly contents.”

Atomic Days is a brilliant, thoroughly researched book. It is a stirring call to action to put a halt to the nuclear madness that continues to pervade our modern world.

Reviewed by Ole Hendrickson, an ecologist in Quebec.

Peace Magazine 2023-01-01

Peace Magazine 2023-01-01, page 37. Some rights reserved.

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