An atomic town revels in its plutonium past as tunnel collapse raises contamination concerns via The Washington Post

This town at the edge of the Hanford nuclear site long ago made its peace with the facility’s history of producing plutonium for nuclear bombs.

Bomber’s Drive-Thru sells milkshakes and burgers. The Richland High School mascot is the Bomber, and a mushroom cloud is painted on the gymnasium floor. There’s Atomic Bowl, Atomic Foods, Atomic Auto Body, Atomic Scuba. 

The Atomic Ale Brewpub & Eatery’s menu highlights a “Reactor Core pizza” with “nuclear butter” and sells house-made beers such as “Half-Life Hefeweizen” and “Oppenheimer Oatmeal Stout.”

Hours after the collapse of a 20-foot portion of a Hanford tunnel full of highly contaminated equipment, Adrian Martens was sitting at the bar having a pint after his Tuesday shift. He said people here aren’t afraid of Hanford — or adopting the atomic iconography as kitsch. “It’s a fun retro thing,” he said. He thinks the news media’s panic about the tunnel collapse “might be overblown.”

What isn’t overblown is the $6.1 billion annual cost of cleaning up the highly dangerous material at Hanford and the nation’s other former nuclear weapons sites, vestiges of the Cold War-era arms race. The Energy Department has cleaned up 91 of these sites but is still working on 16 others, including complexes at Oak Ridge in Tennessee and Savannah River in South Carolina.


Some nuclear experts said that the collapse of the tunnel Tuesday morning was evidence of faltering infrastructure at the sprawling 580-square-mile Hanford site as the federal government battles to clean up nuclear material, in both solid and liquid forms, that remains there. The tunnel, built a half-century ago with Douglas fir timbers and sealed shut years ago, did not stay closed, exposing contaminated rail cars and other debris to the open air.


For others, Hanford symbolizes fear, illness and betrayal. Some call themselves “Hanford Downwinders” because they and their families live downwind of the facility and say they or relatives have become ill from or died of exposure to radioactive materials. Trisha Pritikin, who was raised in the Hanford area, moved away and has been vocal about the diseases her family and friends have. She called Tuesday’s emergency declaration “both alarming and indicative of the continuing elevated levels of danger to the public from the Hanford facility.”


Despite Hanford officials insisting there was no radiation leak from the tunnel collapse, on Tuesday night Rouse was certain that is a lie. He’s familiar with the tunnel that collapsed. Constructed to carry spent fuel in rail cars to a reprocessing plant that extracted plutonium, that tunnel and another like it were filled with hazardous debris, including the rail cars. 

“People don’t go in there,” Rouse said. And he’s skeptical of how long it took for surveillance workers to discover the collapsed tunnel. “When that thing opens up, it’s going to come out of the hole. If there’s any kind of a breeze, it’s going to go everywhere.”

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