Sustainable Activism: The Hanford Nuclear Reservation

Laura Feldman


The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a complex and multi-dimensional issue that demands new ways of thinking and living, rooted in what is local—the unique history, environment, culture, economy, story of a particular place—in a student's own schoolyard, neighborhood, town or community. By coming to terms with the ecological crisis that is Hanford, students will learn to articulate the problems and challenges its cleanup poses, and begin to conceptualize and share possible solutions for involving the surrounding communities meaningfully in cleanup decisions.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a 586-square mile site on the Columbia River in southeastern Washington State, owned by the federal government and operated by the US Department of Energy. It is a former nuclear weapons facility that produced plutonium for atomic bombs as part of the Manhattan Project begun in 1943. Hanford is the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere.

Through involving students in a "Popular Education" approach, this course will emphasize the lived experience of students and community members by addressing their social, political and environmental-change priorities. This approach enables students and teachers as co-learners to critically reflect on the issues in their community, and take action to change them. Students will experience Hanford as part of the Columbia River watershed where they live.

Further, they will learn how to educate others about Hanford. This experiential, community-based service learning about the most toxic nuclear site in the western hemisphere will provide students with a rich opportunity to play an active role in the unfolding nuclear narrative of energy, war, and its wastes.

Course Size:
15 - 30

Institution Type:
Public four-year Institution - Upper division undergraduate

Course Context:

This is a senior capstone course, a culminating educational experience where students bring together the knowledge, skills, and interests developed to this point through all aspects of their education to undertake a community-based learning project. Students from a variety of majors and backgrounds are expected to work as a team, pooling resources and collaborating with faculty and community leaders to understand and find solutions for issues that are important to them as literate and engaged citizens.

The course will be offered either spring or summer term with the class meeting primarily on campus with time spent in the field to include community events related to Hanford as well as a tour of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Course Content:

Students will:

- Learn about the history and ecology of the Hanford region and its associated ecosystems;

- Understand the history of the facilities on the Hanford Reservation;

- Identify the wastes stored at Hanford and how pollutants have entered--and could increasingly enter--the surrounding environment and the Columbia River;

- Learn about Hanford from scientific, geographic, political, environmental, economic, and social perspectives;

- Evaluate the costs, risks, and benefits of the cleanup and restoration to the surrounding and downwinder communities, the ways in which this work is undertaken, and how it affects the long-term health of the region;

- Use a "Popular Education" approach/methodology to create an outreach activity about Hanford that will synthesize what students have learned, and develop ways to share a factual, inspiring, moving, and motivating story of Hanford with their peers and the community at large;

- Work with a community advocacy partner, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (OPSR), to learn how to effectively develop community outreach and engagement in response to the Hanford crisis

Course Goals:

Inquiry and Critical Thinking
Through research, reflection and community dialogue, students will explore Hanford in the context of home place. They will critically examine the environmental, cultural, and political realities that created Hanford and surround it today.

In coming to understand the challenges a site such as Hanford poses, students will be better able to understand and to engage in similar complex ecological problems. Students will learn how concerned physicians, scientists, and citizens are able to take some measure of responsibility in healing this sacrificial landscape.


Students will be reading, writing, listening, and speaking about the Hanford story in a nexus of diverse social, cultural, economic, and political perspectives. These perspectives will be drawn from their families and peers, local residents, Hanford experts and advocacy groups, and other community stakeholders.

Variety of Human and Non-Human Experience (Diversity)

An ecological disaster such as Hanford has both a regional and global reach which encompasses all human and non-human experience today and for thousands of generations to come. Questions of environmental justice are at the core of Hanford: which communities and which landscapes are expendable? Which are not?

Through the lenses of different stakeholder-perspectives, students will explore race and class issues related to the thoroughness of the cleanup for the surrounding communities directly impacted by the wastes stored at Hanford, e.g., Hanford workers, Columbia Basin tribes, Tri-City residents, and downwinder communities like Portland, as well as the wildlife and physical landscape of the region.

Ethical and Social Responsibility

Our community partner Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (OPSR) educates and activates the health community, government, and the public on a multitude of nuclear issues through research, analysis, collaboration, and targeted communications. It also mounts creative exchanges with the community such as Particles on the Wall, a traveling art and science exhibit about Hanford. With guidance from this partner, students will learn how to approach highly complex and contentious issues like Hanford, and will explore how to identify appropriate levers for effective communications and social actions.

Course Features:

Course Features include:

- Group work, research and reflection;

- Community education and advocacy using the methods of Popular Education;

- A tour of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation;

- Development of an outreach activity to educate and engage students as well as the broader community in learning about Hanford as part of an active stewardship of the Columbia River watershed;

- Assessment of the learning process and identification of next steps.

Community Partner: Students will have the opportunity to learn about Hanford with OPSR, whose work is guided by the values and expertise of medicine and public health, and whose mission is to protect human life from the gravest threats to health and survival through various advocacy, education, and outreach efforts. This course will provide students with a supportive, formal and informal learning environment in which social action and learning are inextricably linked. In collaboration with OPSR, students will participate in promoting informed decision-making about the cleanup and containment of wastes stored at Hanford.

Course Philosophy:

I believe that public educational institutions have a responsibility to partner with community stakeholders to educate students and community members to become place-literate and to prepare them for stewardship of sites like Hanford. In my experience as a community educator and activist, environmental education and public awareness efforts often feature didactic and incomplete messaging which have a limited capacity for fostering the social and place-based learning necessary to address ecological crises like Hanford. Popular Education, by enabling active learning with critical space for reflection can:

  • Provide a framework for creating a curriculum from the daily lives of students to address their social, political and structural change priorities, and to emphasize collective rather than individual learning;
  • Incorporate non-traditional methods of teaching such as storytelling, poetry, music and visual arts, to empower biocultural relationships;
  • Create opportunities for learning as social action.

I hope to support a learning community that will enable our students to come to terms with Hanford as part of their inheritance of place, rather than as a frightening abstract issue that we are incapable of understanding or dealing with.


Formative Assessment and Feedback:

Ongoing assessment and feedback: To ensure that students are supported in the learning process, and allowing both instructor and students space to shape the curriculum based on needs and interests, I will create ample opportunities for students to reflect on and critically examine their learning process. Through feedback in and out of the classroom and individual and group reflection, students will identify their strengths and weaknesses as leaders and focus on specific skills for improvement.

Reflection: Students will be encouraged to keep a personal journal throughout the course. One-minute reflection papers will be gathered at the end of each class using prompts from the day's class work. Weekly check-ins/presentations by working groups each focusing on different aspects of Hanford.

Final Project: The final product(s) will be a community outreach activity (e.g. oral, digital art, storytelling, animation, symposium, community gathering to educate and activate students as well as the broader community to learn about Hanford) that will indicate the depth of students' understanding of Hanford. With feedback from OPSR and other community stakeholders, students will have learned how effective they were in teaching others about Hanford.


Syllabus for Sustainable Activism (Microsoft Word 126kB Jan20 19)

References and Notes:


Brown, K. (2012). Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Harden, B. (1996). A river lost: The life and death of the Columbia (1st Ed.). New York: W.W. Norton.

Hein, T. (2003). Atomic Farm girl: Growing up Right in the Wrong Place. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Loeb, P. (1982). Nuclear Culture: Living and Working in the World's Largest Atomic Complex. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan.

Miyamoto, Y. (2012). Beyond the mushroom cloud : commemoration, religion, and responsibility after Hiroshima. New York: Fordham University Press.

Williams, H. (2011). Made in Hanford: The bomb that changed the world. Pullman, WA.: Washington State University Press.

Zak, D. (2017). Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. New York: Blue Rider Press,

Zwinger, S., & Smith, S. D. (2004). The Hanford Reach : a land of contrasts. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Online Articles and Resources:

Hanford Advisory Board. Retrieved (01/05/17) from: []

The Hanford Story, Produced by the Department of Energy. Retrieved (01/05/17) from: []

LaForge, J. "Nuclear War Theme Parks: Mass Destruction for the Whole Family." Retrieved (09/06/2017) from: []

Oregon Hanford Cleanup Board. Retrieved from ODOE: Nuclear Safety. Retrieved (01/05/17) from: []

Oser & Young-Brown. (1996). The Nuclear Guardianship Library. Plutonium Free Future. Retrieved (01/05/17) from: []

"10 Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President". Retrieved (01/05/17) from: []

Tenney, Sean. The Public Health Impact of Hanford. (The Folded Crane, (2012, spring edition).

The Sunflower Newsletter, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Issue 234, January 2017:[]

Social Media:

Hanford: A Race Against Time. Retrieved (01/05/17) from: []

Hanford Nuclear Reservation: A Look at the Nation's Most Polluted Nuclear Weapons Production Site. Retrieved (01/05/17) from: []

Jim, R. (2001). "Nuclear Attack on the Yakama Culture." Retrieved (01/05/17) from: []

Daughters of Hanford. Retrieved (01/05/17) from:




Barack Obama gets stumped on question about Hanford. Retrieved (01/05/17) from:

Down by the River: Stories of Hanford. Produced by Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. Retrieved (01/05/17) from: []