eyes on the U.S.

A Leaking Nuclear Site In Washington State, And No One Seems To Care

Leaking radioactive sludge
Leaking radioactive sludge
Corine Lesnes

WASHINGTON - Radioactive sludge has long been leaking from a nuclear site less than 10 kilometers from one of the West Coast's biggest rivers, and no one seems to care.

According to Tom Carpenter, director of environmentalist organization Hanford Challenge, this virtual media blackout should come as no surprise. The consequences of the leak will only be visible on the long term: “It will be a burden for the future generations,” he says.

The Hanford nuclear site is well known to environmentalists: it is one of the oldest such facilities in the U.S., and was one of the two World War II Manhattan Project plants (with Oak Ridge, Tennessee) where the plutonium used for the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs was manufactured.

Hanford is a massive site that spreads over 1,500 square kilometers, 250 kilometers southeast of Seattle, Washington. “It is the most contaminated site in the whole country,” says Carpenter.

“Two-thirds of the U.S.’s nuclear waste is stored here,” says Carpenter. Since the plant was shut down in 1987, Hanford has become the symbol of the difficulties in the treatment of nuclear waste on the long term, especially at a time of budget cuts.

After the plant was decommissioned, the federal government and the state of Washington both agreed to clean up the site but encountered many problems. On Feb. 22, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, announced that at least six underground tanks containing highly radioactive matter had started leaking. Earlier statements by the Energy Secretary Steven Chu only mentioned one defective tank.

“The secretary (Chu) is very clear that there is no imminent public health threat with these leaks,” Inslee was quick to tell reporters.

Tom Carpenter doesn't disagree – in the short term. No contamination has been detected in the Colombia River. But on the long term, he says, it's a different matter – plutonium has a half-life of 250,000 years.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, as it is called, was built in the 1940s with not much thought to contamination. Out of 177 tanks containing 200,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive sludge, 149 are single-shelled and a third have already experienced leaks, according to Carpenter: “378 million liters have already leaked from the tanks, a record for the U.S.”

A dirty bomb

Since it was decommissioned, the former military facility has been the subject of the largest environmental cleanup operation the country ever seen. To prevent plutonium from leaking into the ground, scientists recommend immediate decontamination but the new High-Level Waste Facility that will be used to “vitrify” the radioactive waste into big cylinders that will be buried, won't be operational until 2019.

In the meantime, neither local nor federal authorities want to invest in a temporary solution. Even though, “there is still time to collect the toxic sludge leaking from the tanks,” says Carpenter.

One of the problems is the political context on nuclear regulation. The Energy Department is dragging its feet to the point that the Washington State decision makers are finding it very difficult to obtain any information on what is really happening at Hanford. “The Energy Department owns this site and sets its own rules. They simply don't want to spend any money,” says Carpenter.

As for Congress, “It hasn't paid any attention to the Hanford situation in ten years and has never asked for a hearing.” Ron Wyden, the new senator of the neighboring state of Oregon wants to change the situation. After visiting the Hanford site, he announced that he would ask for an audit at the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

While the announcement of new leaks did not make the front pages, local inhabitants are growing only more upset. “If a terrorist had dropped the dirty-bomb equivalent of this much radioactive material onto a major city, the entire country would be mobilized,” wrote a Seattle Times reader.

Another wrote: “Al Qaeda should save its time and money and forget about us. We’re going to kill ourselves before they do. No one seems to know what’s really going on at Hanford or how to handle the mess.”

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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