On the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, endangered plants bloom on the shrubsteppe. The Yakama Nation signed a treaty in 1855 to cede some of its lands to the US government. The treaty promised that the Yakama people could continue to use their traditional territory to hunt and fish. But in 1943, those promises were broken, as Hanford became a secretive site for nuclear plutonium production.
Today, Hanford is one of the world’s most contaminated sites, and the cleanup will take generations. As more ceded lands have been encroached on by agriculture and development, the Hanford land is home to an ugly irony: Untouchable by outsiders — but unsafe for members of the Yakama Nation to fully practice their traditions. Now, while they fight for the most rigorous cleanup possible, they’re also finding other ways to keep those traditions alive.
Flash back to 1989, on the other side of the world lies another steppe near Semey (once Semipalatinsk), Kazakhstan. A land that’s survived famine, collectivization, and hundreds of nuclear tests. When an underground test goes wrong, Kazakhs band together with the world and say it’s time to stop nuclear testing for good.
In addition to responding to questions we had about the Hanford site, the Department of Energy provided the following statement: “The Department is committed to continuing to work with the Yakama Nation on progressing toward our common goal of site cleanup,” it says in part. “DOE progress at Hanford is leading to a cleaner environment and additional protections for the Columbia River. This year alone Hanford … completed a protective enclosure around another former plutonium production reactor along the Columbia River and treated over 2 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater.”
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GUESTS: Robert Franklin, Associate Director of the Hanford History Project; Marlene Jones, Marylee Jones, and Patsy Whitefoot, Yakama Nation members; Kali Robson, Trina Sherwood, and McClure Tosch, Yakama Nation’s Environmental Restoration/Waste Management Program; Togzhan Kassenova, Senior Fellow at the Center for Policy Research, SUNY-Albany; Sarah Cameron, University of Maryland
Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up The Bomb, Togzhan Kassenova
Nuclear waste ravaged their land. The Yakama Nation is on a quest to rescue it, Hallie Golden, The Guardian
How Native Land Became a Target for Nuclear Waste, Sanjana Manjeshwar, Inkstick Media
Hanford Site Cleanup Costs Continue to Rise, but Opportunities Exist to Save Tens of Billions of Dollars, GAO
LAICIE: Hi, I’m Laicie Heeley.
In the heart of the Central Washington shrubsteppe, surrounded by fruit orchards and vineyards, is an Atomic City.
Richland, Washington was home for many of the workers who commuted to the Hanford nuclear site back in World War 2…
That’s where you’ll find the reactors that made the plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki… and eventually produced two-thirds of the US nuclear stockpile.
74 tons of plutonium in all.
There’s a lot of history in Richland. And in a cavernous warehouse off the local highway…
LAICIE: … those memories are now categorized, labeled and archived… objects that each tell a story. A phone booth. A break table. Cutlery. A cigarette stand. Box after box of old paper.
ROBERT FRANKLIN: And of course, an old Coca-Cola bottle, cause you know, yay consumerism!
LAICIE: That’s Robert Franklin. He’s the assistant director of the Hanford History Project.
ROBERT: In addition, I’m also the president of the B Reactor Museum Association and a docent at the Manhattan Project National History Museum.
We are in the collection space for the Hanford History Project, which houses the Department of Energy’s Hanford collection and some of our own collections from the community.
LAICIE: Being the means of production for America’s nuclear ambitions meant that during the cold war, this place was on the map. In the kind of way you don’t want to be on the map.
ROBERT: We have in our collection civil defense supplies of biscuit, comma, survival, comma, all purpose. So that tells you everything you need to know, right? Cause the Russians know about Hanford, just like their nuclear weapons facilities are a target of our missiles. So this was out there for anybody that survives the overwhelming onslaught of missiles coming at us, you would have yummy, yummy biscuits to wait out the apocalypse. But here’s other needs you have…
LAICIE: Robert pulls down this huge metal barrel from the shelf…
ROBERT: So what’s another need, well, you need water, so don’t worry. Civil defense would also supply you drinking water! Seventeen and a half gallons and with instructions — how to fill, how to dispense. And then of course, how to reuse as a commode. And one thing I love about them is that what they have you do here when you want to use these is they have the instructions on the underside for where to cut out a seat, a toilet seat. All of the thought and planning that goes into this, you know what I mean? Like how orderly this all is to, to try to survive the end of the world, possibly .
LAICIE: As the world collected more and more nukes… those neatly ordered plans became more and more of a fantasy.
ROBERT: By 1964, the Russians and the Americans have a multitude of H bombs. The bomb shelter craze is over by the mid sixties, because what are we gonna survive?
LAICIE: But this food? It was about more than survival.
ROBERT: It’s an organized way to say to the citizenry that we have rational plan for the worst thing happening. And so you can lower your anxiety. I guess you could almost say it’s also there to make us not have to ask the tough questions of the government. ‘Should we have this many nukes? Should we keep making as many nukes? Should we try to get rid of some of these nukes?’ Right? It helps the defense industry avoid a lot of those questions if you can preach a doctrine of survivability and rationality: Like, well it’s only rational people that have access to these things and no one’s ever going to let this happen, so please, let us keep making more.
LAICIE: Today, in the midst of an ongoing war in Ukraine… the idea that we would all be prevented from using our nuclear arsenals by virtue of sheer bigness and the moderation of people in control … it’s losing its shine.
CNA (Singapore) HOST: There have been fears that Vladimir Putin could cross a red line when it comes to nuclear weapons.
7NEWS (Australia) REPORTER: The US claims Russian officials have discussed how and when a tactical nuclear weapon might be used in Ukraine. The Kremlin, releasing a statement accusing the US of encouraging provocation.
That said …. even before these weapons are ever used in war…. they already shake the soils underpinning people’s lives.
Today on Things That Go Boom…
What happens when Indigenous foodways collide with our nuclear ambitions? And how do people fight back when they’re caught in the crossfire?
Let’s go back to World War II again.
The Americans have just secured a major victory at Guadalcanal, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower has stepped up to command the Allied armies in Europe.
Shoe rationing is in place. The war machine is marching on.
And the US military is throwing its all behind a big plan: industrial production of plutonium, like, yesterday.
ROBERT: When the area is taken the Euro-American settlers and the Indigenous peoples are excluded from the land, the government comes in and builds the Hanford construction camp.
LAICIE: This corner of the state where sheep outnumber humans suddenly becomes its 4th largest city.
ROBERT: From July ’43 until October, 1944, 4 million lunch boxes were sent out. So, 272,000 pounds of processed meat were used in one week, 5,000 pounds of sausage, 2,500 pounds of pot roast, 18,000 pork chops in each mess hall, 15 tons of potatoes daily.
LAICIE: All to feed Construction workers from all across America braving the dust winds…
ROBERT: Right? This is this massive scale of food.
LAICIE: It has to be. Suddenly there are 50 thousand people at this site on the banks of the Columbia River.
And that river, it’s part of the reason they’re there.
It’s what made Hanford the perfect place to enrich plutonium.
It powered a major hydro dam.
And it could cool the equipment as it heated up.
But that river…
Is also home to the annual run of salmon…
A sacred moment for the Yakama nation.
MARLENE JONES: When we take that fish out of the water, they’re sacrificing their life for us as promised, just like the fish has come up the river as promised, our foods come up in the ground as promised. That’s the teaching of our people.
LAICIE: 50 minutes away from Hanford at a diner in Toppenish, on the Yakama reservation… Marlene Jones is holding court with her sister, granddaughter… and her daughter, Marylee:
MARYLEE JONES: The thing that I always try to tell my children is you are from wherever that salmon’s from wherever that deer is from wherever the xasia, the piyuxay, the poncoo, the mumin, the sikoweeya – wherever that’s at. That’s where you’re from.
LAICIE: Over biscuits and soup, four generations of women are thinking about how Hanford has impacted this place.
MARYLEE: It’s already done damage. I’ve got vitiligo, I’ve got thyroid issues. My mother, she was raised on salmon and deer. And how do we know that isn’t what’s impacted this?
LAICIE: Marlene is a cancer survivor. And that leaves this question hanging over their head: is Hanford part of the reason why?
MARLENE: Hanford is just one of the many atrocities that if you listed them all together, which is more important, because they all are, because it involves the lives of our people, the lives of our foods that we gather and the lives of the yet unborn that are coming forward.
LAICIE: They are not asking these questions alone.
The Washington Department of Health has looked at data from the Department of Energy and found that the real risk from fish in the Hanford Reach area of the Columbia River is mercury and PCBs due to other industry — not radioactivity or heavy metals from Hanford.
But McClure Tosch, a biologist for the tribe, says there’s a couple other things we need to know to put that in context.
MCCLURE TOSCH: Things in the river in terms of Hanford contamination today, even compared to 40 years ago, they’re way better, and 60 years ago, they’re even better than that.
LAICIE: Today, Hanford is one of the biggest nuclear cleanups in the world – because it’s one of the world’s most contaminated sites – we’re talking about 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held underground, tanks that leaked radioactive sludge for years before being fixed, and, for a time in the 1950s and 60s, water that discharged radioactive material into the Columbia River.
MCCLURE: With no filtering or screening.
LAICIE: That part has changed.
MCCLURE: They’re pumping that groundwater before it can make it to the river, treating it, and then reinjecting it. And so those are all good things. But they’re not making the river the way that it was before.
LAICIE: Kali Robson, an ecologist for the tribe, says there’s a lot we don’t know about Hanford’s impacts on the land – and human health.
She says the Department of Energy decides what to test for contamination on the site.
KALI ROBSON: there’s a hesitancy to, I think, sample stuff that is known to uptake either radionucleides or things like heavy metals,
LAICIE: Stuff like – goose eggs.
KALI: They used to, some years ago, sample goose bones and also go pick up the egg shells after the goslings hatched and the egg shells, because the mama goose is putting calcium or what she thinks is calcium into those egg shells and lots of times it ends up being strontium 90, which is an analog for calcium.
The last time they collected any egg shells, which is pretty easy to do and you don’t have to kill anything to do it, stronium 90 was detectable and they haven’t collected any of that since 2001.
LAICIE: The Department of Energy says it stopped sampling those shells after strontium-90 concentrations became so low they practically matched background levels…. And that tribal nations are highly involved in deciding what the department does sample.
LAICIE: But maybe the most significant reality here – is that the land where Hanford sits – is still closed off.
That includes religious sites, which some Yakima people can only visit with careful safety measures in place. Yakima cultural educator Trina Sherwood says the Hanford land is also home to important foods – in fact, it’s where some of them ripen first.
TRINA SHERWOOD: The ceded lands have been given to the government but we still reserve our rights in those areas. And as we’re getting close to winter, we have come through the seasons and, I just feel like part of it is missing, you know, some of the foods from that area specifically. But we have put that aside and we have learned to find other areas to gather the same food.
LAICIE: For the Yakama Nation, food isn’t just fuel. It’s faith.
MARLENE: We’re food gatherers, where we take care of our people. One of the jobs that we are known for my daughter, my granddaughter, Patsy, myself, we’re food gatherers for our long house
LAICIE: Patsy as in Patsy Whitefoot – who’s also an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
PATSY WHITEFOOT: When I think of Hanford, I think it has to do with the fact that the federal government has a very heavy presence here, I also think about, even though Hanford might be 12 miles away from the reservation, just the fact that we’re Native people living here on this land and there’s this heavy influence of federal policies, federal regulations, authority, all of that — and just being born Indian means we’re going to be political the rest of our lives.
LAICIE: Nuclear encroachment on Native land in the United States has a long history.
In the 80s…there was an attempt to make Hanford the nuclear waste storage spot for the whole country, which Indigenous communities in the area blocked.
And in the same decade, the government proposed a Western Shoshone mountain in Nevada be turned into a huge permanent waste facility – an effort that’s still on hiatus.
More recently, in the 90s, the country’s nuclear negotiator reached out to Indigenous communities about hosting individual nuclear storage sites – with big financial payouts attached. He framed it as an issue of free choice and sovereignty, and some tribes applied.
But critics say this trade is rooted in an ugly power dynamic – where tribes only need to think about holding that waste because of the lingering impact of centuries of colonial theft.
Over at Hanford, large-scale treatment of tank waste started this year.
The cleanup – is a story that will take many generations.
MARYLEE: That operation started in ‘43 and I’m sure the mindset of it started even before then. And the half life of plutonium being 24 thousand years, I can’t even imagine that.
LAICIE: For now Marylee is focused on the crop in front of her. She harvests on her reservation in Yakama, and teaches kids in schools about edible and medicinal plants.
And as for the Hanford site – where she can’t harvest? She says she trusts the plants growing there – to someday heal it.
LAICIE: On the other side of the world from Hanford lies the wide open space of another steppe. In Kazakhstan.
TOGZHAN KASSENOVA: Picture a Rothko painting where you have two blocks of color.
LAICIE: It’s the kind of land that Togzhan Kassenova told us, can take your breath away.
TOGZHAN: Dependent on the season, the step will change colors from, yellow to to green. For me it’s just this sense of space that I think is most striking.
LAICIE: The grasslands stretch out for more than 300 thousand square miles. And in the Northeastern corner of this plain… the Soviet Union saw the perfect place to test its nuclear bombs.
TOGZHAN: It was easier to to build a test inside on the land that was already flat. They were looking at access to construction materials such as sand and water, there was river nearby for example. they were also looking at transportation links. They wanted to have some transportation access because they would need to move people and equipment, but they didn’t want the site to be too close to a major transportation hub because they were worried about foreign intelligence gathering
LAICIE: Togzhan lives in DC now –
TOGZHAN: And I work on nuclear issues and financial crime prevention research.
LAICIE: … but she wrote a book about her home country and its relationship to nuclear testing. She says in the Soviet era, Moscow never understood what made the steppe so meaningful to Kazakhs. This place they chose for the nuclear tests was about 90 miles from the city of Semipalatinsk… home to some of the most famous Kazakh writers and poets.
TOGZHAN: It was a very colorful, vibrant merchant city, where traders from Central Asia, Europe, and Russia came together to trade their goods. Many educational facilities were there, and so it was a really special place, if you see it with the eyes of Kazakhs. But for the Soviet military, it was an uninhabited place with no value.
And that’s how they described the region, Just barren steppe, uninhabited. They really didn’t see beyond geology and geography.
LAICIE: And seeing the steppe that way was not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1920s and 30s, the Soviets already saw this place as underused – and underpopulated.
TOGZHAN: The Soviets believed that nomads were backward.
LAICIE: Sarah Cameron is a history professor at the University of Maryland. A lot of her work is about how this belief took Kazakhs under Soviet rule to a very dark place.
SARAH CAMERON: Basically they wanted to strip nomadic people of their livestock, uh, round them all up, uh, and put them on collective farms.
LAICIE: Nomadic grazing was stamped out for sedentary life. Rural communities were slapped with impossible meat and grain quotas. And Kazakhs were called to redistribute livestock from the rich.
SARAH: It was a campaign against people who were seen as exploiters, and there was really no definition for whom was going to be seen as an exploiter.
And I would argue that that was quite purposeful, The fact that there was no definition for how many cattle you had to have. So it’s a way, actually, a very insidious way of trying to destroy Kazakh society from within, you know, turning people against each other.
LAICIE: All this pressure on the food system… it adds up to mass famine.
No more sounds of cows or sheep in the pasture. Empty villages. Between 1931 and 1933, one in three Kazakhs die.
SARAH: One of the things that in my sources people comment on a lot is how silent things became.
LAICIE: The famine leaves Kazakhs a minority on their own land – and reshapes what food production looks like.
SARAH: In the aftermath of the famine, they start to hugely expand the agrarian frontier in Kazakhstan. So, make some of these lands, which were previously devoted to pastoral nomadism, to turn them over to settled agriculture, to wheat
LAICIE: But Sarah says some of the nomadic techniques that had once been dismissed wound up integrated back into farm life.
KATIE: Because if you think about the environment of Kazakhstan, one of the problems is that the pastures are not good year-round. In order to get good grass for your animals, you have to migrate from say, summer to winter pasture.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that if you look across the Soviet Union and you look where famine was, ironically, a lot of the food-producing regions were the ones that suffered the most from collectivization.
LAICIE: By the 50s, the region was a major food source for the Soviet Union – but the Soviet Union once again had new big ideas for this land.
TOGZHAN: So the site itself, the main experimental field would have special buildings, which would house equipment. Lots of cables were running underneath the ground as well. There were all those observation points from which the military could observe what was happening.
Scientists and military officials were shipped in from all across the Soviet Union to work on something big – something that, they saw, as the best way to defend themselves from the only country that had used a nuclear bomb.
For some tests they would even build residential buildings or bridges, or even a replica of a Moscow metro, because they wanted to see what impact the nuclear weapon would have on civilian infrastructure. They would also put animals on the experimental field to see how radiation interacts with living organisms.
LAICIE: Except for the honor of being tracked constantly by the KGB …the people on this secret mission were treated pretty well.
TOGZHAN: They had types of groceries that the nearby local communities would not be even able to dream about.
LAICIE: Some of those locals were moved to make way for the testing site.
Others were not.
TOGZHAN: A lot of rural settlements stayed and they stayed right at the border of what would become the actual testing site, the epicenter of the testing site.
And just to give you an idea of the proximity, people actually could see nuclear mushrooms. They were forced to graze their livestock on the land that was now considered to be part of the testing site.
And what it meant is that livestock ate contaminated grass, hay, and obviously then people ate contaminated meat and contaminated milk, and so you had several layers of exposure happening.
LAICIE: But even though some people pushed back…. The nuclear machine kept moving at its own pace. Military officials would get numbers from their own scientists showing sky-high rates of radiation – then insist to local Kazakh leaders that everything was normal.
TOGZHAN: Even when they would clearly see that the radioactivity levels of grains or butter were many times above the norm, they would never disclose this information to local authorities, which meant that the food continued to be distributed.
There was a case of pretty serious contamination of grain, and what the Soviet government decided was, let’s not export it abroad so that there is no information about radioactivity. Let’s just distribute it evenly, put it in different places so that it’s not as noticeable.
And I think it’s pretty insane that that’s how these issues were dealt with.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: Good evening my fellow citizens… I speak to you tonight from a place of hope.
LAICIE: When atmospheric tests were finally stopped in the 60s thanks to a treaty with the Americans…
JOHN F. KENNEDY: … It is a victory for mankind…
LAICIE: … it felt like this huge relief.
Until… it wasn’t.
Because underground tests didn’t stop.
Hundreds more tests were carved into a Kazakh mountain – right until the era of perestroika and glasnost. 1989. An underground test goes wrong.
TOGZHAN: One of the military commanders at the nearby base that hosted heavy bombers, he just confirmed that, yes, in my town, our devices are showing the risk of contamination. He decided not to hide this information, and that was, I think, the last drop to just start this wave of events that just became an avalanche
LAICIE: The news is coming only a few years after some of the biggest, most violent demonstrations the Soviet Union has seen… Kazakhs had already been fighting back against discrimination… talking about reviving their own language and culture. And now …. This. It shocks Kazakhs who’ve already been dealing with nuclear fallout for decades.
TOGZHAN: When this information about that particular test and contamination reached the local Governor of Saint Litan, Ki Bosi, he sent a telegram to Moscow to Gorbachev saying this happened. And our region has been suffering for a long time. How long can it continue?
They were given an impression that the end of atmospheric nuclear tests meant that there was no danger anymore. and so I think in that sense, they felt that they were lied to or misled.
LAICIE: Another person who felt misled was Kazakhstan’s famous political leader and writer Olzhas Suleimenov.
[AUDIO OF OLZHAS SULEIMENOV]
TOGZHAN: Imagine a rather tall person with Jet Black, wavy hair with a lot of charisma. He had the reputation of being a very free spirit, not maybe in line with the party line.
[AUDIO OF OLZHAS SULEIMENOV]
TOGZHAN: He invited people who cared about this matter, who were against nuclear tests, to come to a rally, What he didn’t expect was that thousands of people would show up
[AUDIO OF OLZHAS SULEIMENOV]
TOGZHAN: And they, on the spot decided that it should be a movement.
They called it Nevada because they really wanted to feel united with peace activists in the United States, and very soon, they called it Nevada. And so from the very beginning this was a Kazakh movement, but that saw itself as part of a global movement against nuclear tests everywhere.
LAICIE: And this movement – it blows up.
TOGZHAN: This wave really overtook the entire society of Kazakhstan. And within days, they had millions of people. And international partners would come such as Downwinders from the United States, Hibakusha from Japan, or peace activists from Russia, or people from Europe, or physicians from Canada.
LAICIE: And when they came … the food that was a source of grief in this place … was once again a point of pride.
TOGZHAN: Kazakhs in general are very big on food. Food is our love language. you can be of the most modest means. You might have little, but when the guests come, you really put everything out, everything you have, you save all your best things for the guests.
And so these foreign guests would just marvel that there would be heaps of fruits and different types of meat and just how welcoming the atmosphere was, and they would sing songs together under the starry skies.
LAICIE: As Kazakhs protested relentlessly… they quickly found a surprising ally.
Almost immediately after the protests started, Mikhail Gorbachev invited Olzhas Suleimenov to come with him on a visit to London.
TOGZHAN: Suleiumenov said, we needed him, but he also needed us. Gorbachev was not powerful enough to fight with the Soviet government as a machinery.
[SWAN LAKE PLAYS]
By 1991, that internal conflict comes to a head. And while Swan Lake is looping on Soviet TVs… an attempted coup tries to oust Gorbachev in favor of hard-line leadership.
And days later, this is when Kazakhs see their moment … to force an end to these nuclear tests on their territory.
And it snowballs.
TOGZHAN: Even if the Soviet Union was on its way to collapse, which wasn’t a sure thing yet, I also don’t want to underappreciate the importance of what was done by the Kazakh people.
LAICIE: By October that year — thanks to this mass movement — the Soviet Union announces a moratorium on future nuclear tests.
But not just the Soviet Union.
In a matter of years, the US adopts legislation that temporarily halts nuclear testing, paving the road for President Clinton to take up the issue at the Conference of Disarmament.
On September 24, 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty opens for signature… creating a de facto global moratorium on nuclear testing. Only three nations, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, have tested since.
TOGZHAN: It’s a story of a butterfly effect that we ourselves do not even fully appreciate.
I think the story shows that even when the situation looks unbearable or that nothing can possibly change, it just shows that if you are prepared and if you are ready to fight at the right moment, then pretty incredible things are possible.
LAICIE: Things That Go Boom is distributed by Inkstick Media and PRX. This episode was produced by Katie Toth and me, and edited by Sahar Khan, Nikki Galteland and Christina Stella.
Robin Wise makes our show sound like a tasty snack. And If you noticed we got some new music for this show. That’s thanks, as always, to composer Darien Shulman.
Thanks to the supporters and foundations that make our work possible: the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund, as well as Inkstick’s supporters, including the Colombe Foundation, Craig Newmark Foundation, Prospect Hill Foundation, and the Jubitz Family Foundation.
We also want to say thank you to Laurene Conteras and Rose Ferri at the Yakima Nation. And to the Stanley Center for Peace and Security for sponsoring our visit to Hanford by putting on a conference in Washington State that made this work possible.
If you’re listening and like what we do, we’d love to hear from you…go ahead and leave us a review. And come visit us any time on social @inkstickmedia. We’ll see you soon
TOGZHAN: What I really love, it’s something called baursak. It’s a little sphere. I think the closest for Americans to understand would be like a donut.