Thursday, August 17, 2017

Michael Lewis's Real World Dungeon I Want to Explore - The Hanford Nuclear Site

If I were creating my own "Appendix N" of inspirational literature to base my games on, the first book I'd add to the list would be Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky.

I'll write about it more another time, but the basic scenario is ideal for adventure gaming - an abandoned site (the zone), filled with invaluable treasures (swag) and incomprehensible dangers; adventurers (stalkers) sneak into this site, hoping to avoid death and disfigurement and to return with enough wealth to retire; conditions inside the site defy ordinary laws of physics and perceptions of reality; and the adventurers return to the site over and over, as much from curiosity and wonder as from greed.

It is a scenario that other authors have revisited, often in more-or-less overt homage to the Strugatsky brothers: Nova Swing by M John Harrison, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, Annihilation and the other "Southern Reach" books by Jeff Vandermeer, Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld, as well as the sections describing the Cacatopic Stain and the Scar in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar. (Spill Zone is especially interesting to me because it mashes-up the tradition of Zone stories with the new trend of 1980s-aesthetic weird and horror fiction: Beyond the Black Rainbow, Paper Girls, Beyond the Silver Scream, Stranger Things, Tales from the Loop.)

I once read a review of Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, an adaptation of Roadside Picnic, that suggested the film took on a new life after the Chernobyl incident, because the film's images of a town overtaken by plants and wildlife, a town surrounded by fences and guarded by the military, a town where simply being present can be deadly because of invisible reality-warping forces, because those images eerily prefigured the appearance of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone 14 years later.

I am sometimes drawn to the idea of games that incorporate elements of the real into the fiction of the game. Fighting real animals instead of "monsters," stealing real objects instead of "treasures," exploring real places instead of "dungeons." (Not really fighting, really stealing, or really exploring, of course, but rather having fictional encounters with things that are real.) When I think about the dungeons I want to explore, I think of real places that I will never visit, because they are distant, or inaccessible, or illegal to enter.

I recently read a description of the Hanford Nuclear Site, a site where plutonium was once produced, and where plutonium waste is now cleaned. The United States government, through the Department of Energy, spends $3 billion per year, and employs 9000 people for the clean-up. The article where I read the description is a very good, very disturbing read. And just as people looked at Chernobyl and thought of Stalker, I read of Hanford, and I think of Roadside Picnic.

There is something Lovecraftian about nearly everyone's attitude toward knowledge about Hanford, at least as described in the article. It is an attitude of not wanting to know, because people have already planned and decided to act a certain way, and knowing might cause them to be aware of information that would compel them to act differently, or at least to feel guilty about continuing to act the way they decided. Nearly everyone wants their billions of dollars, their thousands of jobs, their yachts, their wine, their bistros - or else they want to stop spending that money entirely and all-at-once - and almost no one wants to know information that might change their plans, either way. It is an attitude of intentional in-curiosity on the part of almost everyone around Hanford, and it is so different from the all-consuming curiosity that drives the stalkers who enter the Visitation Zone in Roadside Picnic.

Below is a long quote from the article, describing the Hanford Nuclear Site, very lightly edited to focus on the description of the site.

"In early 1943, the United States Army was evicting everyone from an area in Eastern Washington nearly half the size of Rhode Island and setting out to create plutonium in order to build a nuclear bomb.

From 1943 until 1987, as the Cold War was ending and Hanford closed its reactors, the place created two-thirds of the plutonium in the United States’ arsenal—a total of 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945.

More or less overnight Hanford went from the business of making plutonium to the even more lucrative business of cleaning it up.

Nobody in the world has waste like Hanford's. No one has so much strontium 90, which behaves a lot like calcium and lodges inside the bones of any living creatures it penetrates. Along with chromium and tritium and carbon tetrachloride and iodine 129 and the other waste products of a plutonium factory it is already present in Hanford’s groundwater. There are other nuclear-waste sites in the United States, but two-thirds of all the waste is here. Beneath Hanford a massive underground glacier of radioactive sludge is moving slowly, but relentlessly, toward the Columbia River.

The place is now an eerie deconstruction site, with ghost towns on top of ghost towns. Much of the old plutonium plant still stands: the husks of the original nine reactors, built in the 1940s, still line the Columbia River, like grain elevators. Their doors have been welded shut, and they have been left to decay. Rattlesnakes and other living creatures often find their way into the reactors. Of the settlement that existed before the government seized the land, there remain the stumps of trees from what were once orchards and the small stone shell of the town bank. There are older ghosts here, too. What looks like arid scrubland contains countless Indian burial grounds and other sites sacred to the tribes who lived here: the Nez Perce, the Umatilla, and the Yakama. For the 13,000 years or so prior to the white man’s arrival the place had been theirs.

Downwind of Hanford, people experienced unusually high rates of certain kinds of cancer, miscarriages, and genetic disorders that went largely ignored.

A young elk gallops across the road in front of our car. Hunting hasn’t been allowed on the 586-square-mile tract since 1943, and so there’s game everywhere - geese, ducks, cougars, rabbits, elk, and deer. We drive past T plant, the long gray concrete building where they brought the irradiated material from the reactors, to cull the plutonium that went into the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. Because it, too, is cold and dark, it is of less concern than the land surrounding it, for that is where the waste from the plant got dumped. The Nagasaki bomb contained about 14 pounds of plutonium, but the waste generated fills acres of manicured dirt, the texture of a baseball infield, just downhill from the plant. The tank farm, they call it.

On these farms lay buried 177 tanks, each roughly the size of a four-story apartment building and capable of holding a million gallons of high-level waste. 56 million gallons now in the tanks are classified as high-level waste. If you’re exposed to it for even a few seconds you probably got a fatal dose. And yet as you drive by, you would never know anything unusual was happening on the infield were it not for the men crawling over it, with scuba tanks on their backs and oxygen masks on their faces.

149 of the tanks in the Hanford farms are made of a single shell of a steel ill-designed to contain highly acidic nuclear waste. 67 of them have failed in some way and allowed waste or vapors to seep out. Each tank contains its own particular stew of chemicals, so no two tanks can be managed in the same way. At the top of many tanks accumulates a hydrogen gas, which, if not vented, might cause the tank to explode. There are Fukushima-level events that could happen at any moment. You’d be releasing millions of curies of strontium 90 and cesium. And once it’s out there it doesn’t go away—not for hundreds and hundreds of years.

The people who created the plutonium for the first bombs, they simply dumped 120 million gallons of high-level waste, and another 444 billion gallons of contaminated liquid, into the ground. They piled uranium into unlined pits near the Columbia River. They dug 42 miles of trenches to dispose of solid radioactive waste - and left no good records of what’s in the trenches."


  1. Roadside Picnic would make my Appendix N for any number of setting riffs, as well. It's a great book.

    1. I enjoy reading your Picnic-inspired posts. You've written some good stuff building off the book over the years.