Here, in the Plutoniumfrom Unmaking the Bomb: Environmental Cleanup and the Politics of Impossibility (2023)
It’s dusk when we arrive at the B reactor. In the forty minutes it took to drive from downtown Richland to Hanford’s northwest corner, the sky has traded burnt orange for indigo. I have never been on-site at night before, and at first I am absorbed by what I cannot see: the wide arc of the Columbia River, the gentle slope of Gable Mountain, the tumbleweeds performing their jaunty, insouciant ballet. All that remains is B, its cubist form glowing like a beacon in the soft desert darkness.
We are here on this September evening in 2019 to attend an oratorio at the reactor’s core. About one hundred of us spill from buses chartered for the event, some pausing to stare open-mouthed at the facility, others walking confidently toward its light. I’m in that first category, frozen and staring outside of the bus, startled when someone accidentally brushes my arm. Though I have been here many times and could describe B’s geometry with my eyes closed, I have never grown accustomed to this place. Instead, it is my discomfort that’s familiar, a humming anxiety that begins on cue like a musical score.
Inside, I know the air will be stale and the walls will be the seafoam green of Winterfresh gum. I know there will be old safety posters from the Manhattan Project reminding employees not to discuss their work: “Protection for all, Don’t talk. Silence Means Security.” I know I will enter the cavernous room at the center of the reactor, and its three-story graphite core will take my breath away. I know I will stand in that space, heart pounding, and feel the multimillennial weight of what it has made.
We sit shoulder to shoulder for the oratorio, close enough to experience my neighbor’s dry cough and then to smell the lozenge she pops in her mouth. It is an intimacy I will recall with surprising fondness six months later when drafting this essay during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. In less than a year, the moment will feel ancient, an artifact from a previous era. Casual proximity with strangers will have faded like a dream.
Before the singing, there are introductions and thank-yous and a brief history of the reactor, which we learn went critical exactly seventy-five years ago yesterday. A uniformed ranger tells us that B is now part of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a multisited effort to “preserve and interpret” the spaces of the bomb.
“This is not your traditional national park,” she says, a touch of humor in her voice. “We don’t have majestic mountains or babbling brooks. But what we do have is amazing sites, stories, and legacies of the pursuit to build the first atomic weapon during World War II. This is the first full scale production nuclear reactor in the world. Now that’s a mouthful, but when we start thinking about this reactor, this tangible outcome of the Manhattan Project, what does this place mean?”
She pauses for a moment, letting the question settle like dust, then offers several more. “I’ve heard it referred to as the cathedral of science . . . but it can be more than science, more than a pretty amazing industrial building. This is where humankind figured out how to harness the power of the atom that fundamentally changed the world. Does this place strike dread at the destructive power of nuclear weapons? Does it strike hope, inspire hope for what nuclear medicine can bring—perhaps a cure for cancer? There are many, many perspectives, sides, and stories of even a single place like the B reactor. And those stories are spread out across the United States.”
Next, Nancy Welliver, the librettist who wrote the lyrics we are about to hear, tells us she wants to talk about mythology. “A lot of times, when people say, ‘it’s a myth,’ what they mean is, ‘it’s a lie that a lot of people believe.’ I think that word is being misused. . . . To me, a myth is a metaphor to talk about something that’s too big and too complicated to understand any other way.”
Welliver worked as an environmental scientist at Hanford for almost thirty years. Part of her job, she explains, was to investigate 650 acres of radioactive landfill and to itemize the 450,000 cubic meters of waste within. Because records were often incomplete or nonexistent before 1990, she sought out retired workers who could provide insight into the burial grounds’ contents. As they dug into their memories, however, the workers uncovered more than histories of waste; they also shared details about daily life on the job, including dreams they had during that time. Welliver cataloged these lived and dreamed details alongside the waste. Soon, they began to feel inseparable.
“If you work here long enough, you hear a lot of wild and crazy stories,” she says, and we the audience respond with knowing laughter. “I mean you do,” she nods, laughing a little herself. “I’ve heard my share. Some of the things you are going to hear tonight are the wild and crazy stories and some are [the workers’] dreams. I don’t tell you which are which because a lot of the things that happen here are very dream-like and sometimes it’s hard to tell if you are hearing a dream or you are hearing reality.” That ambiguity is productive, she implies, it invites us to think about Hanford differently.
Welliver is particularly interested in the workers’ dreams because she sees their mythological potential. To her, they represent a kind of “collective unconscious,” a means for engaging Hanford’s unreal realities. Indeed, she argues that their seeming impossibility is what makes them useful, allowing us to inhabit the contradictions of nuclear life. She hopes that trespassing the normative boundaries of image and time through song will “have a healing effect.”
To that end, she asks that tonight we enter the dream-like space of Pluto’s temple, which in Greece is called a Plutonium. Pluto (better known as Hades) is the god of the underworld, the god of secrets, the god of riches, garbage, and death. “And when you think about those things,” Welliver says, “they are very much like Hanford: the secrets, the riches, the death, the garbage. Everything that’s buried underground.”
In ancient times, Plutonia were geologically active spaces, often associated with caves or fissures that emitted toxic gases. Usually, it was herdsmen who discovered them, noting changes in vegetation or unexplained animal corpses, then reporting the phenomena to a local priest. If they were deemed evidence of Pluto’s breath, a temple was erected around the vapors, marking the “gates to the underworld.” The devout sought healing there and, if they survived its toxicity, received powerful dreams from below. “I want to put people in this kind of Plutonium, this mythological space,” Welliver tells us, “before we hear this beautiful music.”
The oratorio begins without words, just a sustained, resonant ooooo as the singers take their places between orchestra and core. The sound is palpable, the air thick and vibrating with voice. For the second time this evening,
I forget to breathe. Later, I will read that composer Reginald Unterseher intended this first, simple melody to move us “into a shared story state.” Its “repeating notes” and “descending melodic fragment[s]” are meant to be transportive, carrying us down “into our dream temple . . . and the physical ground.”1
Here, in the Plutonium, the dream-songs are lovely and disorienting, catastrophic and strange. Some are playful, others aching with grief. One is a drum that pounds faster and louder with each line, at once heartbeat and countdown:
I come home from my job
with a terrible headache and fever.
I go to my old bedroom
in my parents’ house in Richland
I dream I am ten years old again.
I can feel an atomic bomb, black, in the
shape of the Little Boy bomb. I can feel it, it is literally inside my head
about to explode.
The bomb is sensible in the Plutonium—its shape and color, its fierce potential energy—because here, body and technology are one and the same. The little boy is Little Boy, “head about to explode,” both destroyer and destroyed.
Another song is sticky, trailing residues of fear and sound throughout the room:
When I worked at Hanford, years ago,
I was often in contaminated buildings
Dressed in whites.
I was anxious.
I dreamed I had gotten contamination
Especially my lungs and I’d try and try
to cough but I couldn’t,
the contamination stayed inside me
and I was so frightened.
Or I would dream that I had contamination
On my feet, didn’t know it
And I’d track it all over my home.
Dreams like that, they were tough
I still have them sometimes.
It is the “kind of nightmare where just when you need to run, you are suddenly in slow motion,” Unterseher writes, his composition filling the space with cello, baritone, and nerves. Like contamination, the dream-song lingers—“I still have them sometimes”—neither substance fully going away. I feel its music acutely, my own body become sensory device: reactive, reaction, reactor.
When I interview Welliver several months later, she tells me that these songs are a corporeal form of reckoning. “I think dreams arise from the body,” she says. “They arise from the bodies of these people that put their bodies into Hanford so, to me, the dreams are Hanford embodied. You know, people go in there and they put these PPEs on and they go into this really strange environment that’s sometimes dangerous. And then they have these dreams that come up out of their bodies. That creates a mythology for this place. A mythology that is unique to Hanford.”
As she speaks, I imagine the dreams forming in tissue, sweat, and breath. I imagine them upwelling in the Plutonium through song. And I think about what it means for contaminated land to be fleshy and relational, for the body to be Hanford and its waste. Among the abstract statistical models that usually narrate production and cleanup, the notion comes as a relief. Yet such embodiment feels suffocating at the same time, another uneven burden of the bomb.
In the oratorio’s final act, for example, dreamers participate in remediation by eating and drinking nuclear waste:
I am inside
one of the Hanford high level waste tanks.
I don’t know how I got there.
I feel trapped.
I am frightened and lonely.
It is dark.
I cannot find the way out on my own.
But I know the only way out is this: if everybody
who has ever seen Hanford
spoonful of the waste
The tanks would disappear.
And the Hanford Site restored to beauty.
To eat the waste; hard to bear the thought.
But I am alone and it starts with me.
Welliver tells me that many of the dreams she collected revolve around this theme. “There was a lot of stuff about eating plutonium.” And though she cannot say with certainty, she thinks this may reflect “the workers’ sense that they are making the waste disappear during the cleanup effort”—a transpositional labor that “reverberates in their bodies.”
Consuming waste also evokes the physical and emotional strains of the job. “A lot of people work out their anxieties through dreams and one of the things that I know about Hanford from having worked there for so long is that it is a really stressful place to work. Super stressful.” It isn’t just the daily risks of the job, she explains, but also the profound implications of the place itself.
When she began inventorying Hanford’s radioactive landfills, the scale alone was a source of practical and existential dread. “I had to dig through all of these old documents that talked about stuff that had happened. You know, there was an explosion here and they buried the equipment, or they tore out this facility and they put all of the equipment in the ground. And I just did not know that there was all of this pretty horrifying stuff out there. . . . [I]t kind of blew my mind. I would look at some of the liquid disposal areas and I would see how much plutonium was in there and I would cry. I would think, ‘I can’t believe this. This is crazy.’”
Another anxious reality, of course, is that cleanup does not actually make waste disappear (that magic trick is only possible in dreams). Remediation doesn’t erase; it manages and contains, in part, by imagining the body as reasonably exposed. I think about the dreamer in the high-level waste tank realizing that she is “the only way out”—that escape means becoming a containment device herself. If everyone “would eat just one spoonful of the waste,” she sings, then Hanford’s beauty would be restored. The melody is slow, her voice traveling upward on violin strings; hesitant at first, then resolved. “To eat the waste; hard to bear the thought. But I am alone and it starts with me.”
Grout sample at Hanford Advisory Board meeting, 2017. Photo by author.
That evening in the Plutonium has stayed with me, its songs like traces on my fingers as I write. There is the ode to the mutant rabbit someone once spotted on site (“It is bizarre, like nothing I have seen before”) and the chorus of atomic soldiers crouching beneath a mushroom cloud (“The colors were beautiful. I hate to say that”).2 There are the songs for the Wanapum who have lived with this land since time immemorial and the ones for the workers who spend their days among its buildings and burial grounds. And there are the discordant refrains for the nuclear project itself: sounds of absurdity and hope, horror and awe.
O my love, we sculpted a guitar from the sweet
In the Hanford desert.
It played a haunting tune, then swelled
and burst in the sun.
The small boy cried, I know not out of sorrow,
or from wonder.3
But the piece I have found most difficult to shake is called “Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle.” In it, the dreamer notices smoke wafting up from his basement and hurries below ground to investigate. He finds “two strange men, laughing and careless, pouring liquid from one of the high level waste tanks into a bottle” and blanches when they offer him a swig of the sludge. The smoke obscures the men’s faces as they pour waste into more bottles, these ones “labeled with the Mr. Clean genie.” Unterseher describes the melody as a “menacing ostinato in 5/8” time, a mutation of the Mr. Clean jingle I vaguely remember from childhood. Its final line is surprised, a single note that echoes around the room: “Mr. Clean winks at me.”
I didn’t feel the song’s impact at first. It was short and bizarre; less moving than others in the oratorio. I barely mentioned it in the notes I scribbled on the bus ride back to Richland that night. However, as weeks have turned to months and now years, the song has grown brighter, like a Polaroid slowly coming into focus. I keep picturing the rebottled tank waste and Mr. Clean’s confident gaze. I keep returning to that final wink.
Indeed, it was the first image that came to mind in December 2021, when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reinterpreted the statutory definition of high-level waste (HLW), making it possible to reimagine large volumes of nuclear material at Hanford. Within this new frame, DOE may choose to reclassify HLW as low-level waste (LLW), a shift that could significantly alter disposal requirements. For decades, the plan has been to turn most of Hanford’s tank waste into glass, a more stable form designed to withstand weathering and time. If HLW is reclassified as LLW, however, DOE will have the option to immobilize this waste in a cement-like substance called grout (a quicker, cheaper, and arguably less-effective remedy).
The agency has spent years making the case for reclassification. It has held public meetings across Oregon and Washington, with familiar PowerPoint slides containing clip art humans and probability curves. It has presented arguments to the Hanford Advisory Board about grout’s remedial potential too, passing a small, puck-shaped sample of the material around the room. One scientist used Will Smith’s career to explain the grouting process, referencing a timeline of album covers and movie posters. First, you mix water with raw cement powder (Rock the House), he said, then that fresh grout (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) hardens (Bad Boys) and sets (Big Willie Style), becoming a “solid mass” (Men in Black) and, ultimately, a mature “final product that slowly ages” (Suicide Squad). These discussions have felt oddly dreamlike in their own right: the grout’s impossible promise in my palm, Will Smith as waste form.
State agencies, tribal nations, and community organizations have resisted reclassification, citing incomplete data and long-term threats to human health and the environment. “DOE has made efforts to guarantee, via a suite of models, that receptors will be safe for the lifetime of those wastes,” Oregon’s Nuclear Safety Division staff wrote in 2018. “We have argued repeatedly that these models leave out key features and processes observable in the real world, supported by decades of data and evidence from DOE’s own reports.”4 Reclassifying waste would not only be “contrary to law,” Hanford Challenge argued that same year, but a “technically indefensible” sleight of hand.5 Or, as Columbia Riverkeeper’s conservation director Dan Serres put it, “If you’re in a marathon at mile three, you can’t just stop the race and say, ‘I won’ by moving the finish line. Sure, the race is over much faster if you move the endpoint, and it costs a lot less” but the waste doesn’t go away.6
As often happens, I have been frustrated by the terms of the debate—discomfited that, in opposing reclassification, I find myself reiterating current structures that I also find inadequate. I want more than existing logics of nuclear impact, more than Cold War remedies for contaminated life. I want so much more than this.
Perhaps that is why I keep returning to Mr. Clean’s wink. His song serves as a reminder that remediation is a social product: a way of seeing waste that has been made and can therefore be unmade. This flexibility feels hazardous on the one hand because existing policies have been hard won and continue to perform important cleanup work. Over the years, they have required that DOE move waste away from the river, cocoon reactors, demolish contaminated buildings, pump and treat contaminated groundwater, and build better disposal facilities. And as reclassification has shown, denaturalizing current policies could allow the agency to implement less-protective remedies like grout (completing projects by moving the finish line).
However, in the heat of such debates, it can be easy to forget that cleanup is already an imperfect construction. Hanford’s finish lines are already fraught with inequities and erasures, its fences already filled with holes. Indeed, the very notion of an end point for eternal waste is a wink in and of itself, a normative bottle for impact and time. It imagines an “after” by bounding what the future can be.
Cleanup advocates (myself included) often rely on a simple, manageable story of remediation. One that pretends a shared sense of purpose and narrative completion. One that is essential and also not enough. In the Plutonium, the dream-songs offer another way into the telling and make me feel hopeful about Hanford for the first time in years. Not because they are lighthearted or comforting (they are neither of those things), but because they tell the impossible stories that I long to hear. They sing the both/and qualities of waste, of contamination, of risk—the real/surreal, waking/dreaming, possible/impossible politics of the bomb.
Critically, the oratorio embraces surreality while remaining grounded in the material. It presents the dream world as physical: its myths and metaphors originating in the body, at once uncanny and mundane. This form of surreality does not make the bomb unthinkable, but instead highlights the powerful fictions that have dreamed it into being. And in the process, it makes space for other narrative possibilities.
Interdisciplinary scholar Ruha Benjamin insists that nonnormative relations require nonnormative stories. “We should acknowledge that most people are forced to live inside someone else’s imagination,” she says. “This means that for those of us who want to construct a different social reality, one grounded in justice and joy, we can’t only critique the world as it is, we have to work on building the world as it should be.”7 The oratorio’s dream-songs embody the kind of “novel fictions” that Benjamin describes: “not falsehoods, but refashionings” that “reimagine and rework all that is taken for granted about the current structure” of social life.8
Such refashionings are not simply about newness, historian M. Murphy writes, but “also about what has to end, what has to come apart, to make less violent worlds.”9 The novel fictions I want cleanup to write are ones that make it impossible to ignore tribal rights, impossible to withhold compensation and care from injured workers, impossible to pretend that No Trespassing signs are enough protection for multimillennial waste. I want a future inhabited by more than statistical people. I want a cleanup that unmakes the bomb’s reasonable harm.
1. “Nuclear Dreams: An Oral History of the Hanford Site.” Performed by the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers. September 27, 2019. Richland, Washington. Libretto by Nancy Welliver.
2. Welliver drew this quote from a 2019 New York Times documentary by Morgan Knibbe called “The Atomic Soldiers.” Knibbe, Morgan. “The Atomic Soldiers.” New York Times Ops-Docs: Season 6. March 16, 2019.
3. The dreamer presented this narrative to Welliver in the form of poetry—drawing from Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Encounter.” Miłosz, Czesław. The Collected Poems, 1931-1987. New York: Ecco Press, 1988.
4. Niles, Ken to Mr. Jan Bovier, U.S. Department of Energy. “Comments on Draft Waste Incidental to Reprocessing Evaluation for Closure of Waste Management Area C at the Hanford Site.” October 4, 2018.
5. Hanford Challenge, Natural Resources Defense Council, Columbia Riverkeeper to Mr. Jan Bovier, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of River Protection. “Comments on Draft Waste Incidental to Reprocessing Evaluation for Closure of Waste Management Area C at the Hanford Site.” November 7, 2018.
6. Shinn, Lora. “As the DOE Abandons a Toxic Mess Threatening the Columbia River, the Yakama Nation Fights Back.” Natural Resources Defense Council. September 19, 2019.
7. Benjamin, Ruha. “Race to the Future: Rethinking Innovation, Inequity, and Imagination in Everyday Life.” Keynote address at Emerson College. Boston, Massachusetts. October 17, 2019.
8. Benjamin, Ruha. “Speculative Futures: Envisioning and Creating Social and Reproductive Justice in These Times.” Keynote address at University of California at Davis. Davis, California. October 31, 2018.
9. Murphy, M. “What Can’t a Body Do?” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 3, no. 1 (2017): 1-15.
Shannon Cram teaches in the School of Inter-disciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell. Her first book, Unmaking the Bomb: Environmental Cleanup and the Politics of Impossibility, was published by University of California Press in 2023. She lives in the Snoqualmie Valley.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Eight.