To Downwinders everywhere
I began my Hanford dance in the early 1990s, at a cleanup hearing I attended at the Red Lion Hotel at Jantzen Beach. During that hearing, I went into an empty restroom and shook the insanity I was being exposed to out of my body—or maybe into my body. How do I make sense of this secret history that I never learned growing up in Portland, in Hanford’s long shadow?
Over the years I’ve visited the site many times, almost as if summoned. Slowly and surely I have developed a relationship with this place that was certainly not my place. In the summer of 2021, I joined artist and educator Yukiyo Kawano along with history professor and OSU Downwinders Project co-curator Linda Richards on a trip to Richland, Washington. The purpose of our trip was to assist Yuki, a third-generation hibakusha¹, in assembling her Little Boy and Fat Man kimono bomb sculptures, which were to be filmed on the seventy-sixth anniversary of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as part of a documentary film project.
The worst radiological disaster in US testing history, the Castle Bravo test of a thermonuclear bomb on Rongelap in the Marshall Islands, took place in 1954, the year I was born. Near the neighborhood where I grew up in North Portland, Japanese Americans were interned at the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Building, now the Portland Expo Center. Not far away, the Vanport housing project was built for shipyard workers during the war and then wiped away by a flood in 1948. I never heard adults tell these stories of place, nor did I encounter them in school. When I was growing up, this part of Portland was where Jantzen Beach had been—the best amusement park, where we swam in an Olympic-sized pool and where my father’s annual carpenter’s picnic was held every summer.
During the 1960s, peak plutonium production years, we also used to swim in the Columbia, in water that bathed the hot fuel rods from Hanford reactors, which along with plutonium and other nucleotides were flushed back into the river. I remember the strange hot spots in an otherwise cold river. On the lower Willamette side of the peninsula we used to play down on Mocks Bottom, a swamp on Swan Island. My father and two of his brothers had worked at the Plylock Timber Mill further down the river, where the first plywood had been manufactured in the 60s. The lower eleven miles of the Willamette, an EPA designated superfund cleanup site since 2000, makes the river one of the most toxic in North America. Several years ago, it became part of my family’s history when both of my siblings developed cancer. I asked my sister’s oncologist if he thought her cancer had anything to do with growing up next to the Portland Harbor superfund site and downwind from Hanford. I intended it as more of a statement than a question because I didn’t expect an answer. To my surprise, he replied, “Yeah, probably.”
An activist friend once asked me how I could live most of my life next to oil tanks perched precariously on the riverbank along the lower Willamette, where 95 percent of Oregon's liquid fuel is stored, awaiting the predicted catastrophe of the Cascadia subduction earthquake. I was struck by the question. I grew up here and had never actually wondered about them. When I did wake up to the industrial destruction and its impact on my loved ones, I became resentful, not just of the polluters and politicians, but of those living in other parts of the city who are as clueless as I had been. I began to understand what it might be like to live in the beautiful, isolated shrub-steppe landscape of the mid-Columbia plateau, next to one of the most toxic and dangerous places on Earth, to be burdened with an impossible cleanup of the place I call home.
On the morning of August 9, 1945, a plutonium bomb exploded over Nagasaki, leveling 6.7 square kilometers of the city and killing 74,000 people by the end of that year. Ground temperatures reached 4,000 degrees Celsius and radioactive rain poured down. On the seventy-sixth anniversary of this bombing, we head up the Gorge with Little Boy and Fat Man to the place where the plutonium for this bomb was made.
Before heading out, we learn that Benton County, where Richland is located, is having a huge surge in Covid cases. Environmental contamination and the virus mingle unseen, especially in places like Portland and Richland, places steeped in denial. The lush green “clean and sustainable” Willamette Valley is drought-dry and brown, and the region has been experiencing record-high temperatures and wildfires the last few summers. We come onto the high desert, into Richland, an arid landscape transformed into a bucolic one by massive irrigation from the Columbia. They are also in the midst of their second hottest summer on record, with wildfires occurring in the Yakama Delta near Richland. We power along in our cool and comfortable rented SUV, ready for the job ahead—to participate in this nuclear narrative.
Richland, at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia rivers, opens out to the Hanford Nuclear Weapons site. Top secret during World War II and heavily guarded during the Cold War era, the site now appears on Google Maps with the label “ex-nuclear production site with tours.”
Recently the region has been experiencing a population increase. People are desperate for affordable housing and most likely malinformed about the low-level radiation exposure risks from “the place” (as locals refer to the site) next door. The community has supposedly welcomed new partnerships for nuclear development, but I wonder how people living here really feel. I know how I feel about living on the Peninsula surrounded by dirty industry, next to a superfund site containing contaminants that pose risks to human and ecological health, with the cleanup, twenty years on, still in the planning stages.
For a long time I didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t experience my story as part of Richland’s story, or Fukushima’s. I was still writing and talking about them, their sacrificial landscape. Not me, not mine, even though I vaguely knew that these moral and environmental disasters engulf me as well. For many years I managed to believe I was not part of this nightmare. Not really.
In Richland, we get settled at the hotel and make our way over to the Columbia Marina Point Park where the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (MPNHP) is holding a commemorative event called Lights for Peace. Yuki had been invited to come and speak at the event and wanted to assemble Fat Man as part of her presentation, an idea which became a polite bone of contention. The message: this would be going too far and was too incendiary, even though the sculpture had been part of a 2016 exhibit at Richland’s very own REACH museum.
Up until 2015, the B Reactor at Hanford was curated by local volunteers, retired Hanford engineers, and others whose tours spoke of the technological wonder of it all, with no mention of the ongoing casualties of their bombs. No mention, either, of how contaminated the world-famous B Reactor museum you’re standing in might actually be. Several years ago, scholars and activists from a group called CORE Hanford met a second time with MPNHP’s staff to discuss expanding the museum's interpretation to include Japanese casualties, tribes, Hanford workers, and surrounding downwind communities. But after several months this round of community dialogue ended due to budget cuts.
Because of Covid concerns, this second annual Lights for Peace was not advertised but not canceled either. It would go on without an invited audience, to be recorded for YouTube where, at present, a video shows a quick splash of images: the ringing of the peace bell, people walking along the path of lights, Yuki standing and speaking from the podium.
Another woman who spoke of her hibakusha experience stops to talk with us after the event. Regarding the safety of living next to Hanford, she says that she feels safe living in Richland: “I know people think we have tails here, but it’s not true.” She is not worried about “the place,” as it is heavily contained. I say that Hanford is very much a concern for many of us who live in this region and beyond and that it is most certainly not safe or contained, not then and not now.
Back at the hotel, we reflect on what a strange evening it had been. Yuki felt disappointed with the ringing of the peace bell—how it was done in such a casual manner by a guy wearing shorts and flip flops, his hand in his pocket. Only a small number of people had been there to hear her story, “Dwelling on my Falling.”
image: a photo of the Fat Man assemblage, suspended from a frame, with the Columbia River in the background. Credit: Irene Lusztig and Helki Frantzen.
The next morning, I walk to a nearby Starbucks. People are sitting at tables, chatting—a couple of cyclists, a senior heading to the golf course that borders our hotel. Only the staff wear masks. Living here seems normal. Elsewhere, Covid is soaring; there are fires and droughts and leaking tanks—but not here. Here, the Columbia River is not dangerously low and hot, as it is in our valley, where salmon are dying due to high temperatures and dams. Here, residents are surrounded by desert, contained. An uneasiness emanates from this place—noticeable because it’s different from the uneasiness I’m used to in Portland. A healthcare worker once told me that her husband was from Richland, where his family still lives. She said there is a kind of mass depression here, like hard-to-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning depression. An artist from Tri-Cities once told me that it is dangerous to drive at night because there is so much self-medicating going on.
We head out with the filmmakers, Irene LusztIg and Helki Frantzen, to the Hanford Reach to assemble Fat Man. This beautiful shrub-steppe landscape that acted as a security buffer around “the place” is open to the public without access restrictions, but it is not, I suspect, without contamination. We unload and begin to assemble the kimono-fabric bomb across the river from the ghost town of White Bluffs. It’s high noon, over one hundred degrees, and the putty that holds the cloth segments to the frame melts almost instantly. We are stalled for a moment by the loss of a crucial ring that will make this bomb take shape.
Fat Man, made from patches of kimonos belonging to Yuki's grandmother, dyed the color of various shades of Earth, and sewn together with strands of Yuki’s hair, begins to take shape. Finally the bomb is launched upward, and my heart skips a beat. As it moves in the wind and flutters, I cry. This isn’t the first time I have been in the presence of Yuki’s kimono bombs. But it is the first time I experience this bomb as part of the place. The wind dances, a call back to the first bomb, the mother-and-child bomb, the innocence-ended bomb, the end-of-the-world-as-we-knew-it bomb.
Early evening back in Richland, at Howard Ammons Park on the river, we set up Little Boy among the family picnics, boats, and kids playing in the water. Linda and I sit outside, ready to chat with passersby, but we are almost completely ignored. Behind us in the community center, Yuki joins a group called World Citizens for Peace for their annual commemorative ringing of the peace bell. She had hoped to share questions given to her by some of the women activists in Fukushima with whom she meets regularly. They were interested in understanding how Richland residents cope with living in a contaminated landscape.
But Yuki comes out of the community center looking exhausted. Instead of posing the questions from the Fukushima women, she was asked to give an impromptu speech about the importance of reconciliation. She began by expressing disappointment at being the only person of color in the room, again. She noted that given the extensive culture of denial around Hanford, including the long history of violence against the tribes living here, she did not feel that reconciliation was yet possible. Reconciliation, after all, requires acknowledgement, and neither the MPNHP nor local leadership had fully acknowledged the true costs of the Manhattan Project and its Cold War legacies.
The ceremony did not remember the casualties of Nagasaki or the ongoing suffering of hibakusha like Yuki, who stood before them. But they did acknowledge American casualties from battles in the Pacific Ocean Theater. When it came time to ring the peace bell, people came up and rang the bell for a bevy of sins and causes, disasters and bad news around the world, all unconnected to that tragic day of August 9, 1945.
Had it not been for the curiosity of three young boys who, intrigued by Little Boy, stopped with their little dog to chat with us, I would have left Richland again feeling largely disconnected from the people of “the place.” Like most children probably anywhere in this region, they were still not being taught the legacy of weapons and waste produced at Hanford, just as I had not been taught sixty years ago. But they did know from family members who worked there that it was dangerous work, that it made some of them sick.
The distinct changes and shifts in the landscape on the long drive back home through the Gorge used to help me contain Hanford. Now they trouble the vast landscape—a dangerously contaminated history that the cities of Portland and Richland have been ignoring for decades.
We stopped at Cascade Locks on the way back. Linda had mentioned that her mother had been there for a family funeral recently and that it had a good vibe. I mentioned that my dad had died there while fishing in 1973 and that I’d only been once since then. My traveling companions graciously agreed to stop for me to visit my father’s last place.
Fishing was a strange leisurely activity I had never known my dad to have when I was growing up. A swirl of sadness surrounds his life—a World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific Ocean theater. I know from a framed photo of the USS Columbia, which hung on the wall in our basement party room, that he was proud of serving in the war to end all wars. But I also know that he floated on a sea of anger and sadness that he could not articulate. All he shared of his war experience was a story about Betty Grable bringing him up to dance onstage at a USO show and his distrust of Japanese people and anything made in Japan.
I don’t know if he ever knew about Hanford or the contaminated river he fished in.
1. *referring to the surviving victims of the atomic bombs which fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While these individuals survived the immediate effects of the blasts, the hibakusha have suffered from the effects of radiation sickness, loss of family and friends, and discrimination.
Author’s note: I am telling this story from stolen lands belonging to the many tribes living along the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. The Hanford Nuclear Weapons Site encompasses culturally significant lands belonging to the Wanapum, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Spokane Indian Reservation, and many other tribes who have cared for these lands for thousands of years. I acknowledge the economic and social values including systemic racism, classism, and the disregard for Indigenous, Black, and immigrant communities that made harm to this place possible. I commit to healing my ancestral relationship with this place and to working towards a cleanup of Hanford that is based on future tribal use and stewardship of these lands and these waters. I am honored to be a guest here.
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