Proud of the Cloud: Social Factors that Influence Perceptions of the Hanford Nuclear Complex
Bittinger, Katherine Helen
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Clean-up at the Hanford Nuclear Complex is incredibly complicated and presents some of the greatest technological challenges of any contaminated site. The relationship between Hanford, the Tri-Cities (where Hanford is located) and the larger state of Washington is equally complex. Social and cultural influences clash with structural and institutional mandates. How then, can we understand peoples’ disparate perceptions of Hanford? What social and cultural factors influence how Hanford is perceived, discussed, and experienced? To gain insight into these issues, I conducted a yearlong ethnographic study in the Tri-Cities, WA. Between August 2015 and July 2016, I interviewed residents of the Tri-Cities, current and former Hanford workers, regulators, activists, and concerned citizens. I also attended public meetings about Hanford and closely followed media coverage of Hanford-related issues. I argue that perceptions of risk about Hanford are formed by a combination of social factors. The social organization of denial (Norgaard 2011) combined with trust in regulatory agencies (Wynne 1992) create a social environment in the Tri-Cities that facilitates the perceptions of nuclear being safe, which is not shared by those who live outside of the Tri-Cities. The deep connection between the Tri-Cities community and Hanford creates a unique set of pressures that are manifested in the creation of a stakeholder advisory board that pushes for high levels of public participation in decision making at Hanford (Rosa et al. 2014). Finally, the news coverage of contested incidents at Hanford regarding worker health and safety (Brown 2007; Cable et al. 2008) reflect differences in perceptions between the Tri-Cities and other areas, and between those who are physically impacted by Hanford and those who are not. In sum, these findings suggest that perceptions and experiences of nuclear technologies and contested illness related to those technologies are much more localized and context-specific than prior research suggests.