About 10,000 people visit southeast Washington state’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation every year. And after a few hours on the bus, some are dazed like tourists who’ve seen one Italian cathedral too many.
On those tours, they have guides. But even folks who don’t come to Hanford’s physical site have a "tour guide" -- someone who can translate the language of Hanford and its nuclear legacy: Liz Mattson.
When Mattson talks about Hanford, she starts by asking people if they know where it is. She said it helps to have a map.
Mattson will show them it’s in Eastern Washington on the Columbia River. Then she'll say, “It’s where plutonium was produced for atomic weapons during World War II and the Cold War. And now it’s being cleaned up and it’s one of the most massive cleanup operations in the world.”
“And that usually gets people’s attention,” she added.
Speaking in code
Mattson sits on the Hanford Advisory Board with meetings and committee meetings nearly every month. Nine hours in a day sometimes about cleanup.
And she brings a special guest: her one-year-old daughter Mazey.
Mattson often brings Mazey along when she’s working for the watchdog groupHanford Challenge. She can shift effortlessly between baby talk and the mother tongue of nuclear waste cleanup: acronyms.
Like “the nerd wall” -- the NRDWL.
“Oh, you know the Nonradioactive Dangerous Waste Landfill” Mattson explained. “Which, you know, that doesn’t really explain anything to someone who doesn’t know anything about Hanford. But that is my favorite acronym, the nerd wall.”
Mattson is not a scientist by training. She’s had to learn the lingo of engineers and scientists to know what’s really being said about nuclear cleanup and how long it’ll take.
“You also know what’s not being said,” Mattson said. “Which sometimes is even more important than what is being said to make sure that there is accountability.”
So when people speak in code, she listens for the gaps. The things that are glossed over.
“If you don’t understand what they’re talking about," Mattson said, "how can you challenge that, or question what’s happening?”
The long process of negotiations
So she learned on the job. And knowing the language has earned her a certain amount of “cred” on the advisory board. She speaks up for Hanford workers about chemical vapors, and how much of them they inhale on the job and she pressured the government to share more information.
About six years ago, she worked to come up with a way to improve public involvement at Hanford. She led the team that wrote a “whole new” plan.
“Usually, at a Hanford Advisory Board meeting, there is a long process of negotiating,” Mattson explained.
She worked on it for about a year with the board. And then, she got a surprise.
“We go to the advice and there wasn’t a single edit,” she said. Nobody wanted to change it.
“I was sitting there wondering, ‘Like, what’s going on? This is so weird.,” Mattson said.
It felt like she was finally an insider.
Getting people to care
But now she’s not sure all that work made a difference. Change at Hanford is slow. And it’s hard to get people involved. Especially young people.
That’s one of her biggest goals. But getting people to care about this thing that started before some of their parents were born isn’t easy. So Mattson tries to set her sights on a realistic target.
“It’s not getting hundreds of people involved for life. Although, that would be great,” she said. “Usually, I think about in a year if we can get one to five people who stay involved.”
That, to her, is a win.
The turn here is, Mattson doesn’t live in Richland. She’s in Seattle. But that’s a good testing ground for her message. Can she get someone to care about something they can’t see, that’ll be around for a long time: nuclear waste.
“Well, I usually start by asking them if they know where Hanford is.”
Then, she gets out her map.
Photography by Kai-Huei Yau, audio and story by Anna King, design by Doug Gast. Family photos courtesy of Liz Mattson.