Anna King found beautiful stories in a dangerous, ugly place.
In “Daughters of Hanford,” a 12-part radio series for the Northwest News Network, the Richland, Wash., correspondent documents some of the women whose lives have intersected with the Hanford nuclear site.
The World War II and Cold War-era plutonium production source for atomic weapons is among the world’s most complicated toxic stews, posing severe environmental hazards not far from the banks of the Columbia River in southeastern Washington state.
In the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s glossary, “Daughter products” is the term used to describe isotopes formed by the radioactive decay of other isotopes. King’s radio series explores how women helped form — and were formed — by Hanford.
“I just think these are beautiful stories,” King said during a Columbia Forum talk Thursday night in Astoria.
There is Sue Olson, a former executive secretary with top-secret clearance who opens a window into the urgency behind Hanford’s work to win World War II and the Cold War.
There is Natalie Swan of the Yakama Nation, a biologist who helps protect an 1855 treaty with the federal government.
And there is the late Leona Woods Marshall Libby, a physicist who worked on Hanford’s B Reactor, the first large-scale nuclear reactor that was part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. The only woman at the B Reactor at the time, she had her own tiny bathroom.
The “Daughters of Hanford” project uses photography, a geomapping application and art to complement the women’s histories.
King, 36, a jumble of demonstrative energy, described herself as a “radio cowgirl” who is comfortable “on a back of a horse, or up a dirt road, or in a pickup.” She said her background — she is from Roy, Wash., a small, rural city near Tacoma — has helped her connect during interviews with rural people in the Mid-Columbia region who can be reluctant to speak with the news media.
Reporting on Hanford can be frustrating. Access to the 586-square mile site in the desert is restricted — she recently took a public tour to gather material — and information often must be extracted from layers of U.S. Department of Energy bureaucracy.
“If we can’t figure out what’s going on; if they won’t release documents; if we can’t ask good questions and get good answers,” King said, “that’s a problem.”
The cleanup at Hanford has been contentious. On Tuesday, for example, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the Department of Energy has been mismanaging the cleanup for three decades. In a letter to the department’s inspector general, the senator asked for an examination of what he called wasteful contracting practices at a waste treatment plant that is behind schedule and over budget.
King believes Hanford is too important to ignore.
“I think the big thing is, we can’t ignore it. We can’t hide our head in the sand,” she said. “We have to face it. It’s hard. It’s tough. It’s not fun. It’s not sexy.
“Nuclear cleanup is kind of dirty, gross work. But we have to do it. It was the legacy that we were handed, and who knows how our history would have been different without it.”