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  Field Notes From
Peter Essick

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Michael E. Long

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From Photographer

Peter Essick

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Cade Nagy (top), and Peter Essick

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America’s Nuclear Waste

Field Notes From Photographer
Peter Essick
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The sensitive security and safety issues that surround the subject of nuclear waste made it hard to gain access to some plants. But Rocky Flats, a former weapons plant in Colorado, was anything but difficult. Everyone there understood what I wanted to do and where I needed to go. They even let me certify as a radiation worker so I could get into more buildings in the complex, which meant I got to wear the suit and respirator.

I went to Paducah, Kentucky, in July when it was 90F (32C) and 90 percent humidity. Then I went into the Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where they enrich uranium. It was 130F (54C), and I shot for two hours. Needless to say, I was sweaty and uncomfortable by the time I got out. The plant has all these motors and equipment running, which make it hot. And it’s as large as a football field, so they can’t air-condition it.

The Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility at Washington’s Hanford nuclear site was quite strange. Cesium 137, which is highly radioactive, is stored in water tanks there. The room where it is kept contains the most intense single source of radiation in the U.S., except for inside nuclear reactors. A barrier of about 13 feet (four meters) of water surrounds the capsules to protect people in the facility. The water emits a blue glow when the lights are off. The scientists told me that if I was on one side of a football field and they removed the capsule of cesium 137 from the water, placed it on the other end of the field, and instructed me to run toward it, I would be dead by the time I got within 20 yards (18 meters) of it.

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