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As Hanford leaks, cleanup continues, and nuclear reservation’s legacy remains

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., right, tours a facility to treat contaminated groundwater with Energy Department manager Matt McCormick on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The facility, located on the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, Wash., is a key to cleaning up the highly contaminated site. (AP Photo/Shannon Dininny)

It’s a legacy. It’s a liability. A radioactive waste tank at the Hanford nuclear reservation is leaking and there is concern that a long-planned plant to treat that waste is behind schedule and over budget.

Seattle-based historian and writer Feliks Banel says that while the area is remote, he one day envisions a park, a place where people could go fishing in the nuclear reservation’s place.

But that is quite a ways off.

“I think hundreds of years from now, they’ll still talk about how the nuclear weapon was developed by this country during World War II and Hanford will always be a part of that legacy,” Banel tells KIRO Radio Seattle’s Morning News.

In 1942, Washington state didn’t bid on the project that has now become a burden, and allegedly danger to nearby residents. It was imposed, a secret site for a secret weapon. There were just a few people living near Hanford at that time.

By 1946, Banel says the population had skyrocketed to nearly 55,000. “They literally built this city of thousands of scientists.”

Hanford developed the plutonium that was used in the very first atomic test in New Mexico in 1945, as well as in the second atomic bomb that dropped on Nagasaki.

The problems that arose were not immediately noticeable. Banel says he doesn’t know when the turning point actually occurred – that this breakthrough in science was in fact a bigger liability than the bomb itself. But he thinks we might be able to look to the movies for clues.

“I’ve seen Godzilla a few times, and I’m not an atomic scientist,” he says. “We’ve all seen movies like “Them!” with giant ants – and that’s all by the early ’50s, the mid ’50s.”

Banel says the real scrutiny started in the 1970’s. And he adds that while scientists can’t prove many of the area’s problems weren’t caused by the nuclear reservation, they also can’t prove problems were caused by Hanford.

Hanford will be a subject of upcoming hearings and a higher priority in Washington, D.C.

Currently, the government spends $2 billion each year on Hanford cleanup – one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally. And cleanup is expected to last decades.

“It’s a mess,” says Banel. “And it will be for a really long time.”

Read more:
Senator Ron Wyden tours Hanford nuclear reservation

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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