Atomic Memory: Blue Glow, High Desert Journal: Witness to the West, Issue 31, Fall 2020
by Nancy Dickeman
Chicken dipped in flour sizzles in the oven roaster. It will be done any time, but I stay on the phone as long as I can keep the doctor, eager for every detail. “Is it serious?” I ask, knowing that it’s certainly more serious than an ear infection or a cold. “It’s treatable,” he may have answered, explaining that she would need to receive immune gamma globulin regularly and would be referred to an immunologist. “Okay,” I say. “Okay. Thank you.” When I get to the chicken, the skin is charred. Maia chortles among the pan lids scattered across the kitchen floor.After several months of receiving immune gamma-globulin injections, the immunologist prescribes IV IgG for Maia. The main difficulty with administering the IV therapy is her troublesome veins. A challenge for a blood draw, they are an even bigger puzzle for inserting an IV. They roll, they collapse, they hide. Before grade school begins, she has surgery for her first port-a-cath, a small catheter implanted in her chest, receptacle for the gamma globulin which contains the antibodies her body does not have the cells to make. With skill and practice, the nurses can access it on the first, sometimes second, try—and the four-hour IV can begin. Still, she coughs and chokes in breath during the night; her ears drain a thick, green fluid. For someone with this illness, her doctor notes she does better than most, never hospitalized, and credits her ferocity, her visible will.
3: blast circumferenceWhen my father travelled for business to Japan, he brought back pearls. They arrived in brocaded satin packets, orbs attached to gold posts, small white circles clustered on pins shaped like leaves. He didn’t visit Nagasaki or Hiroshima, and years later at the dinner table, disclosed he did not believe in nuclear weapons. In an article, he wrote of the dangers of nuclear proliferation, the secrets and materials ballooning out of control. Still, he stood by science, the infallibility of calculations and proof. In a photo, my father stands in his suit and tie, cutting a figure against the backdrop of the periodic table, smoke rising from the cigarette he holds in his hand.On August 6, 1995, the thirtieth anniversary of the day the atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” was dropped on Hiroshima, my family and I go to Seattle’s Green Lake for the annual commemoration, “From Hiroshima to Hope.” Meris, Maia, and Gabe take thin sheaths of lantern paper to the calligraphers for our messages to be inscribed: Peace, love, hope, and attach them to the flat wood bases and float them on the lake at dusk. Hundreds are lit with candles and pushed by the wind, some float across the lake, a trail of burning lanterns, and some catch along the banks, flames skimming the tree’s branches and the long reeds arcing across the water’s edge. A few feet from shore, photographs are suspended beneath a white canopy, a visual documentation of the wreckage and bodies burned: Atomic clouds erupt above the two cities, city blocks becoming a furnace of fire and ash. Over the years, the commemoration, held every year since 1984, has grown to be one of the largest held outside of Japan. Each year, we are among the crowd, carrying our lit lanterns to the lake. In my hometown, an annual memorial takes place on August 9, the anniversary of the dropping of the “Fat Man” bomb on Nagasaki. Held along the banks of the Columbia, it includes the ringing of a bell given to the city of Richland by the Mayor of Nagasaki in 1985. The bell is a model of the Bell of Peace recovered from the ruins of Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, where it was rung to console the bombing’s survivors.
4: vitrificationNow the Hanford Site is dedicated to cleanup. Known as the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere, it is a huge task too often marred by contractor incompetence or disregard. Work is focused on building a vitrification plant to encapsulate the complex radioactive waste into glass logs that can be stored safely, airtight. Construction is marred by errors, gigantic cost overruns and whistleblower complaints highlighting serious design flaws. Cleanup at Hanford’s plutonium processing plant has been especially fraught with difficulties. Dozens of workers have ingested or inhaled radioactive particles, and plant offices, vehicles, and homes have been found to be contaminated. Worker safety has been in the spotlight, with serious health problems linked to exposures to toxic vapors on Hanford’s tank farms.My father, who believed in the purity of science, would be looking for solutions were he alive, convinced that technology today would find a way to clean up the nuclear production that burst out of the gate before problems and solutions were understood, that remedies might still be found. The nine nuclear reactors of the early days are now decommissioned. Six have been “cocooned,” placed in interim safe storage, and one, the B Reactor, has been declared a National Historic Monument. Another reactor, which began production in 1984, the Columbia Generating Station, operates on Hanford land leased to Energy Northwest, producing—along with its unavoidable byproduct, radioactive waste—electricity used to help power the Northwest.
5: rutheniumWhen Maia was in middle school, her IV regimen was increased. It helped her infections and her health, cleared her eyes and her nose. Now in her thirties, Maia continues her treatments, and we stay vigilant to make sure insurance keeps her. She also sees a pulmonologist for bronchiectasis, a condition that may be related to her immune disorder. She sings into her Acapella device and works to keep her lung muscles strong enough, pumping air.Common variable immune deficiency is on the rare disease registry, as is my third-degree complete heart block. Her brother has asthma; her sister was tested for an immune deficiency, and the results were negative. Still, I’m never sure when or how something might pop up, some epigenetic detour from my past, or from my mother’s past. The summer she was pregnant with me radioactive ruthenium, white wisps of matter, floated through the sky. I worry they might sneak into my family’s blood or organs out of the blue.
6: burial, atomic memoryIn 2004, a glass vial containing one half-gram of plutonium-239 was found in a rusted metal safe buried in the ground at Hanford. The Hanford dirt has opened to hold many things, holes dug deep enough to cradle nuclear submarines.Over one million gallons of radioactive waste have leaked into the Hanford ground, the plume advancing towards groundwater and the river. Approximately one-third of 177 underground single-shell tanks have leaked radioactive waste; one double-shell tank is leaking highly hazardous radioactive and chemical sludge between its two shells. Most of the tanks holding 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste have already exceeded their planned life spans.My sisters and I pull out the family history from within the closed bookcase. There is a white shoebox, and written in ink in my mother’s handwriting, the unassuming label “Nuclear Items.” I lift the lid and pull out objects: an acrylic display case shaped like a wheel holding thumbprints of colored powders, samples of ore, yellow, ocher, orange. In a white envelope, photos from the flood of 1948, a section of the dust-blown town underwater, the Columbia taking more than the path of its bed, its waters flowing over farmland and streets. It is let loose.There is a dosimeter badge to monitor radiation exposures, employee badge—”Loose Lips Sink Ships”—a souvenir program from JFK’s visit, 1960s pamphlets for the N Reactor—”What’s in N, N Means New,” and a gold-colored pin swirled into an atomic symbol, the town’s mascot. I place the lid back on, fasten it with a rubber band, and return it to its dark shelf.
7: half-livesI visit the Columbia on an autumn day, and scour the banks for a smooth, grey stone, the kind I used to skip erratically across the surface. I find a shell, a ribbed curvature, beyond a layer of ice framing the river’s edge, cracking and vanishing as the water grows deeper.At night, the harvest moon rises and floats across the river’s back, an orange ball carried on the current. On the opposite bank, the dark hills fall into the river.Whatever wind, river, earth have carried through this town, along these banks, I’ve taken in. I’ve opened my arms to gusts, my jacket flying behind me like a kite. Walked home in storms that cloaked my face with a sheen of sand. Swam in the lagoon, gulping in water as I played, staying afloat.Here, a scrim of sand scuttles along the shore, the paved path, and streetlights cast a glow across the town’s grid. In the morning, the wind stirring, the river will gleam, full of plankton and fish, carving its course past Hanford.