Tag Archives: Environmental Education

Hanford Nuclear Site- What You May Not Know

Image Source

If you are concerned about the fluoride debate, you should be REALLY concerned about the Hanford site.”                                                 -Green drinks guest speaker

This Months Portland Green Drinks featured a presentation on the Hanford Nuclear Site. Two guest speakers from Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR Oregon Chapter) highlighted the Particles on the Wall exhibit, which utilizes art and science to tell the Hanford Site story. (See Info about the exhibit at the bottom of this post.)

“The display was thought of during a happy hour brain storming session, so we thought it was Green Drinks appropriate,” said Kelly Campbell, PSR’s executive director, with a laugh. “Hanford is kinda a downer, so having a drink makes it a little easier,” Maxine Fookson, a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who volunteers on the Oregon PSR Peace Work Group, adds with a smile.

Although Campbell and Fookson’s attitudes were lighthearted, their message was delivered with the utmost concern, poise and passion as the women explained the Particles on the Wall’s mission, a brief history on the Hanford Site, and current concerns.

Below is a quick overview for those unaware of the Hanford site, or need a little refresher, as well as key take-away thoughts.

Who What Where:

Hanford occupies 586-square-miles (for comparison, Los Angeles is 503-sqaure-miles) in the desert terrain of southeastern Washington state along the Columbia River, and sits approximately 250 miles upriver from Portland Oregon. It’s the site where plutonium was produced for the devastating bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. It’s considered the most toxic site in the Western Hemisphere. 

Social Justice Concerns:

For centuries, the Hanford area was home to several tribes of Native Americans.  According to the Hanford website, “Remnants, artifacts, and burial sites associated with historical Native American activity are found throughout the site and are protected by law.” Hmmm…doesn’t seem like their was much protection to me. 

“When the War Department decided to locate portions of the Manhattan Project to this part of Washington, it also decided that work to develop atomic weapons had to be done in secret. Subsequently, in early 1943, all of the residents of White Bluffs and Hanford were told to evacuate their homes and abandon their farms, and were given just 30 days and a small amount of money to do so.” -Source 

Once the residents vacated the area, people from all over the country came to Hanford creating a workforce of 51,000 to build the nuclear reactors and processing facilities required to extract plutonium for atomic weapons. Apparently, very few of the workers knew what they were building (until the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945), but worked under the guise of “very important war work.”

After World War II, production increased in response to the “Cold War” and continued until 1987 when the last reactor ceased operation. 

Environmental Concerns:

So why is nuclear a big deal? – For one, it produces a gigantic amount of toxic waste that we still have no idea how to get rid of, and no safe way to store.

The main Hanford product, plutonium-239, has a half-life of over 24,000 years. At this rate of decay, the plutonium produced at Hanford will take 200,000 years or more to become stable nonradioactive material. -Source 

The Tri-Party Agreement-Cleanup:

In 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Washington State Department of Ecology, entered into a legal Tri-Party agreement to clean up the Hanford Site.

According to Fookson and Campbell, the federal government spends 2 billion dollars annually on Hanford cleanup, that’s 1/3 of the money spent on nuclear cleanup in the country. With the sense of urgency generated by World War II and the prevailing secrecy, wastes were dumped in the soil and the river. Additionally, large volumes of high-level waste were placed in huge single-shell storage tanks, with the assumption that it could all be taken care of properly after the war.

As you can see in the picture at the top of the post, the Hanford site sits RIGHT ON the Columbia river. Nuclear anything (power for electricity, weapon development etc.), requires a HUGE amount of water. The diagram below helps explain how the toxins leak into the soil, water table, and the river. 

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Health Concerns:

“The government did not reveal a number of significant health-related events until forced to do so in the late 1980s when citizens exercised the Freedom of Information Act. Although highly sophisticated radiation monitoring was performed throughout the history of Hanford, the government did not tell the public the details, repeatedly assuring them that everything was safe.” -Source 

Understanding of radiobiology slowly evolved. Initial hopes that the soil would hold wastes from leaching into the groundwater were eventually proven wrong. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster alerted the public that a serious accident could occur at Hanford as well, and the resulting contamination of the Columbia and its basin would affect the population of the entire Northwest. 

“The true situation at Hanford remained hidden from the public. The community faith in “good jobs, good pay, and a good cause” had long fostered an emphasis on production and a neglect of safety.”  -Source

Only after a particularly brave inspector and whistleblower leaked information to the press, and a very revealing series of expose articles appeared in the newspapers, did any meaningful changes occur. 

Local Stories:

In addition to the towns of Hanford and White Bluffs, the 300 residents of Richland were forced to leave their homes as well. Richland is the only town of the three that still exists with a current population of 48,000. The high school mascot remains to this day the “Bombers,” with the recognizable mushroom cloud as its logo.

During the PSR presentation, Fookson read moving, and often heart-wrenching poetry written by individuals effected by the Hanford site, some from the Richland region, “…even the snow was dusty…even the dust was radioactive, though we didn’t know it.” 

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Columbia Generating System-Nuclear Power Plant:

Located 10 miles North of Richland, this reactor provides Washington with approximately 10% of the state’s electrical generation capacity. With the 1992 retirement of Oregon’s Trojan Nuclear Power Plant, it is the only commercial nuclear power reactor remaining in the Pacific Northwest. According to Fookson and Campbell, Oregon receives approximately 3%-4% of its power from the Columbia Generating System, and the plant recently received an “okay” for 20 more years of operation.

Grave concerns about the use of nuclear power energy has prevailed for decades, however with the catastrophic events of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster following the earthquake and Tsunami on March 11, 2011, potential problems have been revisited. 

Potential for Pacific Northwest Catastrophic Event:

The Pacific Northwest is due for a huge earthquake, and scientists say that it’s not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when.”  Need a recap of the destruction caused by the 9.0 Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan on Fukushima? : A series of equipments failures, nuclear meltdowns, releases of radioactive materials and foreseeable years of cleanup. Can you imagine something similar at the Washington sites in the event of a catastrophic earthquake in our region?

Along the Columbia river, electricity is generated through hydroelectric power (utilizing the dams), wind power (utilizing the wind turbines) and nuclear power generated at the Columbia Generating System plant. Did you know that when there is too much electricity on the grid (yes, our grid is in need of a SERIOUS overhaul), the wind turbines are shut down, not the nuclear plant, because it is next to impossible to turn that power plant off. Does this make progressive, environmental sense?

Where should our Energy go? What Can We Do?

As explained by Campbell and Fookson, you don’t have to be an expert on nuclear power and the Hanford site to be concerned. Since the Hanford site is in Washington, Oregonians don’t have any jurisdiction, but we are equally effected, (those arbitrary state lines). Portland is far closer to the Hanford site than Seattle for example. I encourage you to contact your local politicians, and Washington state politicians to share your concern about the cleanup of the Hanford site, and the need to close the Columbia generating system power plant. 

I will close with Campbell’s thought provoking and inspirational plea.

When we think about the incredible national support, the immense amount of money, the quick response, and the brilliant minds brought together to create the technology of the atomic bomb, it’s truly amazing.

What would it look like, if we took that same energy, funding, citizen support, brilliant minds, and sense of urgency towards fighting climate change… Imagine what we could accomplish!  

You are cordially invited to join Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) for Particles on the Wall, a multi-disciplinary exhibit combining visual and literary arts, science, and historical memorabilia to explore the lasting impacts of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the nuclear age.

When: Exhibit runs from May 3rd through June 14th. Open to the public weekdays from 8:30 AM until 5:30 PM and Sundays 8:30 AM until 2:00 PM.

Where: The Ecotrust Building, 2nd Floor (721 NW 9th Avenue in Portland)        Free and open to the public!

Want to Tour The Hanford Site? It’s Free!

For Additional information on the the History of the Hanford Site Visit: Hanford History, Hanford Site

For Additional News Stories on the Hanford Site Visit:

 NBC News.com:  “Six tanks now said to be leaking at contaminated Hanford Nuclear Site”                                                                  Huffington Post: “Hanford Nuclear Waste Tanks Could Explode, Agency Explains”                                                                              Scientific American: “Hanford Nuclear Waste Cleanup Plant May Be Too Dangerous”

Please share your thoughts and additional resources in the comment section below-thank you!

 

 

Columbia Slough Part II- Natural Surroundings Education

IMG_0113-Columbia Slough near Columbia Blvd. Wastewater Treatment Facility-

I’m a huge proponent in learning about your natural surroundings. What are the native species in your area? What are the bodies of water near you, and the mountains and hills that surround your city/town? Do you know where your tap water comes from? I encourage everyone to attend free events to learn more about your surroundings. It’s a great way to meet interesting individuals, and learn about the “behind the scenes” people that help run our city!

I shared my new found interest in the Columbia Slough in my last post, and I  just couldn’t get enough, so I attended a free educational event to learn more about this enticing area. Co-hosted by the Columbia Slough Watershed Council (CSWC) and Multnomah County Drainage District No 1., the hour-long event was a great opportunity to learn about the Columbia Slough, the watershed, and the human impacts on the water flow using flood control levees.

Byron Woltersdorf, P.E., an engineer for the Drainage District NO. 1 (MCDD), was our tour guide and educator for the event. IMG_0024He explained there are four drainage districts along the Columbia River from west of I-5 to Troutdale, the watershed has  31 miles of flood control levees, and with the help of the 1936 flood act and then the revised 1950 flood act, the lower Columbia River basin is now protected from flooding with the help of levees constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

When the MCDD was formed in 1917, the land in and around the district was primarily agricultural.  This use of land was perfect, as the annual flooding was great for adding nutrients to the soil. However, as the land use changed over time, eliminating flooding was necessary for the growing urban lifestyle.

IMG_0026-Drainage District NO. 1 Pump House-

After a general history lesson and Q&A session, Woltersdorf gave us a tour of the pump house. Water is pumped down the slough towards the Willamette River, however, there aren’t any pumps on the lower portion of the slough. This portion is tidally influenced from it’s close proximity to the Columbia River, which can be influenced by as much as 1.5-3.5 feet, depending on the tide. (Pretty amazing, considering how many miles away Portland is from the ocean!) The pump house we visited at Drainage District No. 1, can pump 600,000 gallons of water a minute if every pump is running (not normally necessary.)

IMG_0022

-Pump Area at Drainage District NO. 1-

During a Hundred Year Flood event, the stations would require to pump a million gallons a minute in a 24-hour period of time.

Speaking of power, apparently, there is not enough of an elevation difference to use the pump house as an energy source, but if the power went out during a time that the pumps needed to be running, five semi-trucks and five tanker trunks would be necessary on site to operate with a generator according to Woltersdorf. (Yikes- that is a huge monthly electricity bill!)

The MCDD meets a few challenges along the way. One interesting critter is none other than Oregon’s state animal, the beaver. There are approximately 3000 beaver in the managed flow plain. Woltersdorf explained, somewhat hesitantly, that his department is allowed to trap and kill the animals when necessary, as the beavers can be problematic. The workers are also allowed to remove dams when needed. The effectiveness of this is limited however. Woltersdorf said that his crew took down a four-feet tall dam once, and in only two days, the beaver erected the same size dam in the same location.

Turns out, “Busy as a Beaver,” is relevant!

Although this department is not in charge of water quality, (mentioned in my previous post), Drainage District  NO. 1 station takes in storm water runoff from a 20,000 acre area of town.

IMG_0121

-Columbia Slough Pump area- East of Wastewater Treatment Facility-

For all my history buff readers, a wonderful resource for additional information on the history of the Columbia River Basin, and the Slough, please visit Center for Columbia River History website. It’s full of images, stories, and historical accounts of the area.

Do you have any favorite waterways near you, or stories on discovering your surroundings? I would love to hear them, please share in the comment section below!

Special thanks to the Drainage District NO. 1 and Byron Woltersdorf for all the valuable information, and fun tour!

Thank you for opening  your doors to the public and keeping us all safe from floods….the unsung heroes of Portland!

Special Thanks to the Columbia Slough Watershed Council for all the environmental education, stewardship awareness, restoration, and relationship building they perform in the community and watershed. Please visit the site for additional information, volunteer opportunities, and announcements for future events and workshops.

Appreciating All Critters Through Example

“The way a child discovers the world constantly replicates the way science began.  You start to notice what’s around you, and you get very curious about how things work.  How things interrelate.  It’s as simple as seeing a bug that intrigues you.  You want to know where it goes at night; who its friends are; what it eats.” ~David Conenberg

My mantra the past several years has become: Teaching the youth good habits is far easier than asking them to break bad habits when they are older.

Indeed, children are our future stewards, and exposing them to the natural world is not only fun, but also our responsibility.  It’s far easier, and more exciting, to care and protect things that we know about and are meaningful to us!

It’s amazing how children are truly a product of their surroundings and upbringings.  For example, my mother is deathly allergic to bees, and has been absolutely terrified of them since the first time she was stung and rushed to the hospital.  This fear for her is somewhat understandable, as she has a life-threatening reaction to the venom.  However, I grew up watching this response in my mother and became terrified of bees as well, jumping and screaming whenever one came near me.  It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I started examining this unspoken communication, these signals my mother was sending me, and decided I would no longer fear bees. Instead, I remain calm when a bee is near, send it my loving energy and ask it kindly to move onto the next best thing.  In turn, my daughter  Hadlie has been watching my peaceful reaction to the bees, and responds exactly the same way.  She laughs at her friends, and even her grandmother, when they get panicky with the first site of a bee.  She tells them, “It won’t hurt you, just relax so you don’t scare it, or it might sting you!”  (She is so wise.)

My daughter’s affection for critters expands to numerous taxonomy, all winning her gentle touch.  At our last home, my daughter would run out to the car every morning before we left for the day,  to “rescue” all the snails that for some reason, would hang out near the wheels of my Subaru.  She didn’t want any of them to get squished, so she would gently place them in the garden, (where they had plenty to eat of course)! 

My father has enjoyed vermicomposting (worm composting) for years.  When we visit my family, Hadlie is right out there with grandpa feeding and sorting the worms and looking after them.  Whenever we go for hikes, camping trips, or even play in the backyard, my daughter seems to notice and find the most interesting bugs!  She will hold them, examine them, maybe build them a home out of moss and twigs.  She had an entire complex for those snails she loved so much, complete with yoga studio, grocery store, fine dining restaurant, and a special room for “mating.”  (I have taken a plethora of biology classes; she knows about reproduction).

We both don’t care for critters in our home, but we could never kill anything.  Instead, we “capture” the spiders (usually the culprit) and release them outside.  (Okay, so maybe spiders aren’t my “favorite animal,” but I would never let on!)

I’m so thankful that I have been able to instill in my daughter a love and appreciation for all the living things on this planet, and I am sure she will pass that same mindset of gentleness, caring and love to her own children one day.  After all, life is about attitude, and choice.