RICHLAND -- Occupy Portland spent a mostly mellow afternoon in Richland's John Dam Plaza on Sunday.
About 150 attended, hearing messages in opposition to nuclear war, nuclear energy and nuclear waste.
Speakers repeatedly reminded the crowd that they were there because Richland is next to the most radiologically contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere, the Hanford nuclear reservation where weapons plutonium was produced during World War II and the Cold War.
"It's the belly of the beast," activist Dr. Helen Caldicott said.
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But the sun shone, children and dogs played, people danced to the music of Portland bands, tribal members beat drums and good food was eaten.
Along George Washington Way, demonstrators in anti-contamination suits waved signs at passing traffic.
"Go home you damn hippies," yelled one person from a passing pickup.
But another man stopped in the center lane to have a shouted conversation across two lanes of traffic with the demonstrators.
He tests water at Hanford, and environmental cleanup progress is being made there, he said. He thanked the demonstrators for caring, but said they needed to get their facts straight.
The rally was part theater. One woman in a flowing cape and gas mask waved a rubber salmon and other people blew bubbles because, as their sign said, "Radiation travels thru the air like these bubbles blowing in the air." A veterans for peace group from Eugene, Ore., flew an American flag upside down on the stage.
Some members of the Eastern Washington Section of the American Nuclear Society showed up with their own signs, describing the safety record at Hanford, and talked to the media about nuclear science.
Tony Brooks, a retired Washington State University professor of environmental science, talked to members of Occupy Portland, saying that shutting off nuclear power meant shutting off the lights.
"OK, I'll use candles," one participant in the rally told him.
Mariah Carlson of Hood River, Ore., said she'd been attending meetings about Hanford environmental cleanup since 1990.
"It's not come very far," she said. "It's a ploy for corporations to get corporate welfare. ... They make a career of it."
Caldicott said she didn't understand why more people were not here.
"People don't know what's out there (at Hanford)" and contractors are cutting corners in environmental cleanup and safety, she said. "An educated populace will act."
Heidi Strangesky, whose father was a nuclear scientist, said she'd lived in Richland until last year, but since she moved to Portland she's felt free to speak her mind.
"The government is too twisted into Hanford, and there needs to be more community oversight," she said.
"Caring about our well being and the health of our children and the quality our food is not fear mongering, and to say everything is fine is denial," she said.
The land up and down the Columbia River was holy to the area tribes before Hanford, said Walla Walla Chief Carl Sampson. Government officials told the native people that Hanford would not hurt the fish, the land or the people, he said.
"I'm here to ask all of you: When are you going to clean that mess up? You polluted our land," said John Brave Hawk, co-founder of the Warrior Society of the American Indian Movement.
Occupy Portland planned the Hanford rally because living in Portland is living on the Columbia River, said Occupy spokeswoman Miriam German.
"We're here because problems that plague Hanford have been long suppressed," she said. "A disaster here affects all of us."
Underground tanks that hold millions of gallons of radioactive waste at Hanford have leaked in the past. The cost of building the vitrification plant to treat the waste for disposal has ballooned from $4.6 billion to $12.2 billion and may go higher than $20 billion by the time the plant is built, she said.
Technical issues have been raised about the plant's design, including a possible buildup of hydrogen that could cause an explosion or a build up of plutonium that could cause a criticality, she said.
"We want this done right," she said. "We do not want the Columbia River threatened."
"Join us in asking if there is enough being done to clean up the most contaminated site in the Americas," Strangesky said.
Environmental cleanup at Hanford needs to be done as thoroughly as possible and no additional waste should be brought to the site, said Chuck Johnson of Columbia Riverkeeper.
In addition, nothing must be done that would risk a catastrophic accident that could spread waste throughout the region.
He's worried about the Columbia Generating Station, the Northwest's only nuclear power plant, which operates on leased land at Hanford.
The Fukushima, Japan, nuclear disaster last year showed that nuclear disasters happen even in technologically sophisticated countries, he said. Hanford is a seismically active area and a Grand Coulee Dam break could flood Richland, he said.
In time, the momentum will build to shut down the Northwest's last remaining nuclear power plant and the chance of a disaster to the Columbia River, he said.
Energy Northwest, which operates the plant, has said that the plant is built to withstand a quake in excess of magnitude 7.0, and at three miles from the Columbia River would not flood in a breach of the Grand Coulee Dam.
* More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com