Althea Halvorson was a young woman at the time of the world's first nuclear blast. Now 88, she finds it deplorable that the U.S. is at war in Iraq over a nuclear threat that wasn't real, yet has made little progress at removing a nuclear threat close to the Columbia River that is very real.

Situated next to the Columbia in Eastern Washington, the Hanford Nuclear Site is one of the world's most contaminated places and will be dangerous forever.

Hanford produced the plutonium that leveled the city of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Another nuclear bomb factory at Oak Ridge, Tenn., enriched the uranium that destroyed Hiroshima three days earlier. Today Nagasaki and Hiroshima are safe places to live, unlike Hanford, Oak Ridge and more than 100 other places across the country that contributed to the U.S. arsenal of 70,000 nuclear warheads.

Until recently, the debates have been over how thoroughly these sites will be cleaned up. But in recent months the owner U.S. Department of Energy has changed the tune. Why not limit the cleanup to the bare minimum? The taxpayer would save a total of $100 billion at sites across the country. At Hanford, officials claim the risk to the river and the public from the waste is quite low.

But powerful opponents beg to differ, and are lining up to fight the agency, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, several Native American tribes, citizens groups and Oregon and Washington. They say the Department of Energy would break several environmental laws and shred legally binding contracts that require the removal of the dangerous waste.

"Here we've got WMD going into our river, and they tell people they don't have the money to stop it," Halvorson said at a public hear­ing on the DOE's plans in December in Portland. "It's shameful."


Paul Koberstein