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Nuclear waste ravaged their land. The Yakama Nation is on a quest to rescue it

A generation after it was decommissioned, tribal members are still working to clean up the Hanford nuclear site, one of the most contaminated spots in the US

by Hallie Golden in Benton County and Yakama Nation reservation, Washington.


Trina Sherwood gazes out at the Hanford nuclear site as she speeds across the Columbia river in a small motorboat. More than 500 sq miles large and ringed by rocky mountains, the decommissioned nuclear production site is considered one of the most contaminated places in North America.

It also sits on the ancestral lands of the Yakama Nation and other Indigenous peoples in Washington state. Here, precious wildlife, vision quest sites and burial grounds lie side-by-side with signs reading “warning hazardous area” and towering nuclear reactors, some of which date back to the second world war.

There’s Gable Mountain, where young men would fast and pray, explained Sherwood, a cultural specialist for the Yakama Nation’s Environmental Restoration/Waste Management (ER/WM) program. There’s Locke Island, where an Indigenous village once stood, and the towering White Bluffs, where Native people collected white paint for ceremonies. There are also outcroppings of tules, which were used to make mats for ceremonies and tipis, as well as yarrow root, which was known to treat burns.

The Hanford nuclear site was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, and over the next four decades produced nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the US’s nuclear weapons supply,  including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

During its lifespan, hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste were dumped in underground storage tanks or simply straight into the ground. After the site’s nine nuclear reactors were shut down by 1987, about 56m gallons of radioactive waste were left behind in 177 large underground tanks – two of which are currently leaking – alongside a deeply scarred landscape.

In the decades since, the Yakama Nation has been one of four local Indigenous communities dedicated to the cleanup of this historic landscape. For the Yakama Nation, that has meant tireless environmental and cultural oversight, advocacy and outreach with the hope that one day the site will be restored to its natural state, opening the doors to a long-awaited, unencumbered homecoming.

Today, their outreach work has reached a fever pitch. There are few Yakama Nation elders still alive who remember the area before its transformation, and there are likely decades to go before cleanup is complete. So members are racing to pass on the site’s history to the next generation, in the hopes they can one day take over.

Today, their outreach work has reached a fever pitch. There are few Yakama Nation elders still alive who remember the area before its transformation, and there are likely decades to go before cleanup is complete. So members are racing to pass on the site’s history to the next generation, in the hopes they can one day take over.

But in the 1940’s, the situation shifted dramatically when the area was cleared out to make room for the construction of nuclear reactors.

LaRena Sohappy, 83, vice-chairwoman for Yakama Nation General Council, whose father was a well-known medicine man, grew up in Wapato, about 40 miles from Hanford. She said she remembers the strawberry fields that lined the Hanford site, her family gathering Skolkol, a root and daily food, and traveling to the area for ceremonies.

Her cousin’s family who lived close to Hanford were woken in the middle of the night and forced to leave to make way for the nuclear site, she recalled

“They didn’t have time to pack up anything,” said Sohappy. “They just had to leave and they were never told why and how long they were going to be gone.”………………………………………………..

In the past decade, it was also discovered that hundreds of gallons of highly radioactive waste have been leaking from two Hanford tanks, threatening the Columbia River…………………………………….

A ‘push and pull’ effect

Despite the sometimes glacial nature of the federal government’s work, the Yakama Nation have scored some important wins.

Recently, the ER/WM succeeded in amending a cleanup proposal for an area next to the Columbia River containing nuclear reactors, ensuring it will include a review of the impact on local aquatic insects. And in the coming months, Tosch says the tribe will work with the federal government to assess the effectiveness of a polyphosphate injection to sequester uranium found in Hanford’s groundwater; an approach the tribe has questioned.

ER/WM staff have also pushed back against a federal government change in how high-level radioactive waste is classified, which could downgrade some of Hanford’s waste, ultimately preventing it from being removed from the site as expected. The energy department said they don’t plan to move forward with this new interpretation without first meeting with local Indigenous Nations…………………………

‘For our children not yet born’

A fully rehabilitated Hanford site likely won’t happen within the lifetime of Yakama Nation’s elders, or even the generation that follows. So, they’re working diligently to bring in younger tribal members to the effort.

August 20, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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