Toxic Avengers 

Occupy Portland Takes on Hanford's Nuclear Waste

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THE BRIGHT CARAVAN of buses and vans streaming into Richland, Washington, on April 15 told locals this would be no ordinary Sunday in the quiet town.

About 200 or so protesters from Occupy Portland and other Northwest branches descended on the small Eastern Washington town to kick off their newest effort: Occupy Hanford, a movement targeting a nearby storage site for nuclear waste and one of most contaminated spots in the country. Originally planned as an event to help speed along the cleanup process at Hanford, the rally ultimately took on more of an anti-nuke agenda, attracting fiery protesters, irritated locals, and one guy in a business suit.

The daylong event, filling the plaza outside Richland's courthouse, brought forth an array of speakers who addressed the ills of radiation and called for the community to push the US Department of Energy into closing Hanford, likening it to Japan's toxic, quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.

"People don't know what's out there," said Dr. Helen Caldicott, an international anti-nuclear activist, pointing to the cars passing the plaza. "Do you think they know? We must educate this community, this country. An educated populace will act."

The former Hanford nuclear plant, which officially shut down its reactors in the early '70s, remains one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the United States. While technically dormant, Hanford still holds 53 million gallons of nuclear waste—stored in underground tanks that may be leaking into the groundwater that eventually filters into the Columbia River, which Caldicott calls the "most radioactive river in the world."

Bechtel, the contractor responsible for cleaning up Hanford, is working to transfer the waste to secure tanks, an initiative kick-started in 2001. Hanford's February progress report pushed the cleanup's completion to 2065—a hefty revision from its previous target, 2028—with a $122 billion price tag.

But not everyone was sold on Caldicott's speech. "Her scare tactics are merely collusion, these people out here are crazy," said Gerald Woodcock, a Richland native and retired Hanford engineer. "They want us to believe that radiation is the cause of every ailment, but if they'd do their research they'd see otherwise. What they don't know is that people out here are the healthiest around." Woodcock added that he takes his grandkids swimming in the Columbia regularly and when he tucks them in at night, "they don't glow in the dark." He joined a gathering of counter-protesters across the lawn from Occupy's rally, handing out fliers titled "Hanford—The Hard Facts."

"We believe the good people of Portland have been misled by charlatans whose agenda has nothing to do with science, facts, or the laws of physics," read the handout.

The arrival of a bunch of outsiders, protesting a place that's fueled the economy of Richland and its neighbors for decades, didn't go over easily. Even Occupy Tri-Cities, the local Occupy vein, was split over its involvement in the event.

"It's so close to home for a lot of folks, making it difficult to address," said Jeremy Peterson, who's been with Occupy Tri-Cities since its October start. "But at the same time, this is a local symptom of Occupy's core issues."

The arrival of a bunch of outsiders, protesting a place that's fueled the economy of Richland and its neighbors for decades, didn't go over easily. Even Occupy Tri-Cities, the local Occupy vein, was split over its involvement in the event.

"It's so close to home for a lot of folks, making it difficult to address," said Jeremy Peterson, who's been with Occupy Tri-Cities since its October start. "But at the same time, this is a local symptom of Occupy's core issues."

Hanford management declined to comment on the movement or attend the event. But one guy in a suit, wandering around with fliers, claimed he was from Bechtel. He wouldn't give his name.

The event's organizer, Miriam German, said she wished more people had come out in support. "But that's the nature of Occupy," she says. "A lot of people are into the concept, but a few actually take action. It takes a lot for someone to be a real activist."

As for what's next? German says Sunday's event was merely one step for Occupy Hanford. Now, she says, the group wants to shut down the Columbia Generating Station, the lone commercial nuclear power plant still hosted on Hanford's land. They'll attend utility meetings and pester corporations. "This is just the start of something big."

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