The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is one of the most contaminated sites on earth. And Susan Leckband is using her natural curiosity to help clean it up.
As a girl Leckband just had to call the Frito-Lay company. Their number was clear, right on the back of the crinkly package. And she was curious.
Leckband’s mother and father were not amused.
“I asked a lot of questions, and when I was a kid I got in a lot of trouble making long distance phone calls,” Leckband recalled. “It cost a lot of money in those days to make long distance phone calls.”
Back when she was about eight years old, and she had questions about Fritos. Now, at 67, she’s into nuclear waste.
A life-changing event
Leckband has served on the Hanford Advisory Board for 19 years. For most of that time she also worked at Hanford.
She remembers clearly the day her love of the area and her passion for cleanup set fast. About a year before she joined the advisory board, there was a series of events honoring nuclear site workers for Hanford’s 50th anniversary. One night she volunteered at a dinner modeled after what the workers used to eat -- with Hanford menus and even World War II-era music.
“I was fortunate enough to meet some of the original workers,” Leckband said. “And I was so inspired by them.”
Talking to those Hanford workers changed everything for her. Because of what she learned about their lives. And how hard it was in the ‘40s and ‘50s to pick up, move to southeast Washington and work on a top-secret nuclear project.
“It brought me to tears as I was serving them food and talking with them, about why they came out here from all over the country and lived in conditions that most of us would even not do if we were camping, frankly. Because they loved their country,” Leckband said.
A force for change
After that night, Leckband was compelled to throw her shoulder into cleaning up the site. In her time on the Hanford Advisory Board, she’s watched tremendous amounts of cleanup happen near the Columbia River. More than 100 old buildings have been demolished, tons of contaminated soil has been moved away, and even contaminated groundwater has been pumped and treated.
“I think of how beautiful [the Columbia River] is. And how vital it is to the city of Richland and Portland and everything downstream.”
At a recent Hanford Advisory Board meeting, Leckband asked if cleanup on a 75-square-mile area is checked on schedule.
“Does it really happen on a five-year cycle?” she asked.
“It does now,” answered the EPA’s Dennis Faulk to laughter -- partly because people like Leckband asked the question.
'It matters. It's personal to me.'
She has one major regret.
There’s a concrete and steel pool a stone’s throw from the Columbia River. Radioactive fuel rods were left there with water to shield them, and they broke apart into a radioactive sludge-y mess.
“The length of time it has taken, and it still is taking, to get that waste away from the proximity of the river that has been disheartening to me,” Leckband said. “That it’s taken so long.”
Leckband’s dream for the Columbia is for her children and grandchildren to be able to ride their bikes along this great river’s shore past old reactors and sagebrush. That the fences and armed guard there now would be a thing of the past. She’s not giving up.
“My family looks at this river and cares about it and, and it matters,” Leckband said. “It’s personal to me.”
And that’s what makes her a Daughter of Hanford.
Photography by Kai-Huei Yau, audio and story by Anna King, design by Doug Gast. Family photos courtesy of Susan Leckband.