For decades Patty Murray’s image has been the working mom of the U.S. Senate. Agree with it or not, she’s brought home the bacon: Murray’s funneled billions of federal dollars into Washington state and especially to the Hanford nuclear site.
Murray first visited the cleanup site shortly after being elected to the Senate in 1992.
“To go on that site and to see the size of it, and the amount of buildings and how complicated it was. And just to begin to get a feeling of the sense of what a huge monumental task this was to clean up. Was just incredible,” she said.
Explaining Hanford to senators and presidents
At 64 years old, Murray is also the most senior woman senator, and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate. But she said it’s sometimes challenging being female and talking about technical Hanford cleanup with other U.S. senators and presidents.
“When I came into the Senate and probably many times since, people assume that men know the facts,” Murray said. “Women know the facts, ‘cause we go home and study, ‘cause we want to make sure we know them. But often times the assumption of a man is that he knows it. So we have to prove all the time that we do know what we’re talking about.”
Murray has seen senators and presidents come and go for more than two decades. With every new administration, she said she’s felt a responsibility to explain what Hanford is. Barack Obama made headlines in 2008 when he admitted to voters in Pendleton, Oregon, that he didn’t know about the nuclear site.
Murray said radioactive cleanup work at Hanford is complicated, slow and messy -- but necessary.
“I think we are all frustrated that we have been working on this for such a long time and it’s not neatly done, wrapped up in a package and we can say we can move on,” she said.
A town that is ‘completely gone’
Murray remembers her father talking about basketball games. He shot hoops in the early 1940s on what’s now known as the Hanford nuclear site.
Back then, there was a small town near the Columbia River also called Hanford. Murray’s father grew up just down river in Kennewick.
But the town of Hanford was shuttered in 1943 by the federal government. Some residents had 45 days to pack up and leave. The government had plans for a super-secret project to produce plutonium for bombs. Murray said the Hanford nuclear site was built there while her father went off to World War II.
“And all of a sudden Hanford, a place where he had gone to play high school basketball and knew people from there was just completely gone,” she said.
Old fruit trees still survive there and plants mark where old homesteads once stood. Now the ruins of the town stand in the shadow of the F Reactor. As part of the Manhattan Project, it was built during the final stretch of WWII.
“Later on as I got into politics myself and became responsible as a United States senator for funding it, I became aware of the complexity and the size and the incredible work that was done there that was so secret -- when my dad was there,” Murray explained.
‘You have to clean up your room’
Murray said a few things drive her to work hard on Hanford: Her family connection to the site, and being a woman and mother.
Murray said U.S. politicians and Energy secretaries sometimes go after shiny new energy projects that look more appealing than legacy waste cleanup.
“And I kind of feel like it’s my mom responsibility to drag them all back in and say ‘You have to clean up your room. Yes, you want to do all these great new things, but you have to clean up your room,’” Murray said. “It’s a responsibility of all of ours.”
The aging, underground tanks at Hanford hold 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge. Not so long ago, and not so far away, from where teenagers used to play basketball.
Photography by Kai-Huei Yau, audio and story by Anna King, design by Doug Gast. Family photos courtesy of Patty Murray.