A Tale of Two Cities

Well, actually it’s two tales that appear to be about different places but are actually about the same place called Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick and Pasco), in the southeast corner of Washington state. It is also referred to as “Washington’s Wine Country” by the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau. This is how the bureau introduces the region and its unique role in national history:

“Richland started out as a small farming community...but the population boomed from about 1,500 to more than 51,000 residents in 1943 when the government built the country's first nuclear reactor on the Hanford Site. The Hanford Site continues to play a major role in the Tri-Cities economy and is also a huge part of the science and technology communities worldwide. The Hanford Reach is the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the United States and was recently designated as a National Monument by President Clinton.”

In May 2012, the Tri-City Herald proudly announced that the area was named “almost the best place in the U.S. to raise children, according to the current online issue of Kiplinger.com magazine [a publisher of business forecasts and personal finance advice.]” The article detailed how the region had high incomes, plenty of land and natural amenities, and high spending on and high achievement in education.
The Kiplinger review describes Richland as a “technology hub” where the Department of Energy, the region’s largest employer, “runs several major operations.” Because of this “families can earn a very comfortable living.” 
The article in the Tri-City Herald quoted the CEO and president of the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau as saying, "This is such a plus for us. We're finally being recognized for things we've always known about the Tri-Cities." The local boosters seemed to think that the endorsement from a financial consultancy was equal to ranking high on the UN Human Development Index. They failed to notice that, being interested in business forecasts, Kiplinger.com might have been bullish on the Tri-Cities purely because the ecological contamination there guarantees that the region will continue for a long time to receive billions of dollars in federal funds for decontamination work. Tri-Cities gets a buy recommendation.
Astute readers will catch in that quote above a hint that the region’s boosters are resentful that people tend to know only about the infamous nuclear weapons factory that left behind an ecological disaster. I’ve written about it in earlier blog posts, and the problem was back in the news recently with reports about serious setbacks in the decontamination work. The news has been a top story in major West Coast newspapers this week.
The Los Angeles Times noted, “Construction has been stopped since last year over allegations that the plant's design for mixing radioactive waste could allow explosive hydrogen gas to detonate inside the plant, or allow enough radioactive solids to accumulate in tanks to trigger nuclear fission.” These possibilities have been alleged by whistleblowers, but their concerns have been dismissed by contractors who retaliated against these detractors by, for example, reassigning the person involved to meaningless work in a basement office with no furniture.  
An Associated Press report described the high level of attention the problems are getting from governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, and national senator for Oregon, Ron Wyden, because of new discoveries about leaking waste tanks. In the report, governor Inslee says, "We received very disturbing news today. I think that we are going to have a course of new action and that will be vigorously pursued in the next several weeks."
Hanford's tanks hold about 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste, many of which are known to have leaked in the past. The estimate is that 1 million gallons of radioactive liquid have already escaped. The tanks are also long past their 20-year life span, which raises the possibility that the leakage has been more extensive than just what has recently come to light.
After reading these reports, readers might wonder if the damage done at Hanford is beyond fixing in any meaningful way. For fear of causing hydrogen explosions, or setting off fission reactions, or exposing workers to deadly levels of radiation, people cannot access the tanks to begin the work of solidifying the wastes and moving them out. Meanwhile, the cleanup funds have become an entrenched part of the national budget and lifeline to the “almost best place in the U.S. to raise children.” No one benefitting from this scenario has any financial incentive to work quickly or ever finish the job.
And yet none of this is to say that the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau is wrong. The region is blessed by nature, while the hazards are out of sight and totally intangible to human senses. I would love to live there, if not for the plutonium. The area is blessed again by billions of dollars of federal spending that has come, and will continue to come, for decades - perhaps centuries even - to the area’s “technology hub.” Just like the town of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, built during the Soviet heyday, it is a new urban development made expressly for an elite of well-paid scientists and engineers. As every honest educator knows, it is the money and the high socio-economic security of families – not lazy unionized teachers – that determine the good educational outcomes that the Visitor and Convention Bureau boasts of. Nonetheless, being educated does not equate with being wise. Wise creatures never would have created a nuclear weapons factory in the first place.
One ominous example of the region’s meaning in the world may be in the fact that the most high profile convention it can get is that of The Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (CCJW), who held their convention in Richland in the summer of 2012. This is an apt choice of locale if your goal in life is to prepare for The Rapture, but it is an incongruous pairing with the supposedly rational, technocratic and scientifically literate community. The good news is that the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau has been negotiating to have them come back in 2013, so it looks like the CCJW believe we can at least get one more summer before the “appointed time” for Armageddon. 

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