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Young people belonging to the Yakama Nation learn about Hanford's legacy


It's one of the most contaminated spots on Earth. But long before the U.S. government made plutonium for bombs at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state, the land belonged to native peoples. Yakama leaders now want young people to know about the area's hunting and fishing legacy and the cleanup burden that lies ahead. The Northwest News Network's Anna King has the story.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: At the eastern edge of Umtanum Ridge and the curvy outside hip of the cool Columbia River is a rest stop called Vernita. It's a grassy oasis in Washington's dry side.


KING: About 70 Yakama Nation high school and college age youth get off two tour buses.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello. Hello (laughter).

KING: This is not your typical high school field trip. They've just been on Hanford. That's the nearly 600-square-mile radioactive cleanup site where the government made ultra-secret plutonium during World War II and the Cold War. Reporters weren't allowed on the tribal tour. I caught up with them at this highway rest stop. Seventeen-year-old Leilani Redheart says this is the first time she's been at the site's sprawling interior.

LEILANI REDHEART: I got to go see the tanks, the reactors, all different nine reactors. We got to drive by, and then we obviously got to go in Reactor B.

KING: That's the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor. Those tanks are aging and deteriorating steel and concrete tombs full of radioactive sludge. They hold 56 million gallons of salty, toxic goo. Tribal leaders helped plan this trip for months, along with a Hanford watchdog nonprofit, Columbia Riverkeeper. Phil Rigdon is the superintendent of Yakama Nation's Natural Resources Department.

PHIL RIGDON: For them to see it and to understand, and then also to see what this sacred place - what's happened to it and the devastation.

KING: Containing and treating the radioactive waste at the site, which has already cost billions, could end up totaling more than a half trillion dollars. The U.S. government has struggled to execute the cleanup for decades.

The Yakama and other tribes lived here. They sang songs, many of the same ones sung today. The Columbia River sweeps through the site. That's where Native peoples caught salmon. They gathered roots and medicines, conducted ceremonies and buried their dead. But Hanford's construction stopped all that.

Leilani Redheart says after this tour, she feels different.

REDHEART: Not only, you know, knowledge-wise, but it kind of feels closer to my culture, closer to what I grew up knowing and kind of giving me the opportunity to really know what happened.

KING: Eighteen-year-old Jordan Ashue was taken aback by seeing the cocooned reactors and hearing how long the cleanup will take.

JORDAN ASHUE: There's a specific thing where it's, like, 75 years just waiting to, like, make sure that it was good to clear out. What am I? Eighteen - that's going to be, like, 90 years old. This is going to be a while.

KING: Phil Rigdon with Yakama Nation says it's hard to pack in centuries of knowledge in a short tour. But even this small bit of connection, he says, helps the land and the people heal.

RIGDON: If we are able to sing a song, if we are able to be in the land, it knows us, it knows who we are.

KING: That's important, as Hanford's radioactive waste will remain hazardous for generations to come.

For NPR News, I'm Anna King, near Richland, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.