What do you do when you have a huge dilemma, and the number of people who can solve it is dwindling? That's the problem at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation -- one of the largest environmental cleanup projects in the world.
About 12,000 people are working on it right now. But the vast majority of Hanford's top experts are nearing retirement age. That leaves this complex cleanup task to the next generation.
The stakes are high: one wrong move could mean an environmental disaster, or a contaminated worker.
The 'sea captain' of the Plutonium Finishing Plant
The Plutonium Finishing Plant in central Hanford is an eerie place. It's a hulking concrete factory with a looming stack shrouded by dense winter fog.
Workers hustle to their destinations on a sidewalk matrix where razor wire and dogs once stood guard.
No cell phones are allowed so there's a constant din of speakers blaring communication calls all around the massive facility.
Bob Heineman is a bit like the sage sea captain of the Plutonium Finishing Plant. He knows this ship with all its creeks and leaks. Heineman's the head guy here for a federal contractor called CH2MHill.
Even just this one facility on Hanford is super complicated – and there are hundreds of situations like this out here.
At Heineman's plant, there's an entire building where a radioactive explosion decades ago contaminated everything inside. He's steered work safely here for years, problem is: Hieneman plans on retiring in the next three to four years.
Training the next generation
Standing at his side is Jenna Coddington. She's 27 years old and she's Luke Skywalker to his Yoda.
"My generation we have a lot of respect and admiration for the amount of work that was done here and the history that they know, so... Bob and I in particular have a great relationship. I can ask him anything and he always gives me 10 times the amount of information that I thought I needed and now I'm glad I know."
Like many 20-somethings, Coddington's full of youthful optimism. She has intense green eyes and red hair, with a personality to match. She's currently the communications lead for this old factory. She's younger than Heineman's children and she's eager to take on more responsibility at this plant, and take me on a tour.
She pushes open airlocks with flair, and heaves open heavy doors to show me dusty places that will be torn down within the month.
She says she's not scared of the time when Heineman leaves. She's been studying this plant, going through intensive trainings and reading anything she can get her hands on.
"The stories of how people worked out here is what I think we’re going to lose the most of. 'Like you're never going to believe what happened that one day, and I’ve been friends with that guy ever since.'"
Spreading the word about Hanford
Cameron Salouny is 26, and like Coddington he can't get enough on Hanford's history. In fact, he recently made a documentary-style movie about trying to understand the place.
He's pretty new to the PR team for the federal government that manages the Hanford site.
Asked, "What's the hardest thing about being 26 on the Hanford DOE complex?" Cameron Salouny responds:
"It's probably a matter of being behind the curve of Hanford knowledge. A lot of people have worked here longer than I've been alive."
And the aging of this workforce isn't the only issue. The entire Northwest and nation also need to understand the site to keep cleanup moving forward.
Taking on the Hanford Advisory Board
So says Liz Mattson, another youngster (comparatively) at 30. She's one of very few young regulars to the Hanford Advisory Board. Mattson says the people on that board have a lot to teach her, but sometimes it's just hard to relate:
"The people on the board are all about my parents' age. So it's funny if I go home and my parents invite a lot of people over for dinner, I'm like 'oh, this is my Hanford crew!'"
This Hanford Advisory Board is important. In these meetings stakeholders give advice to federal Hanford officials on how they want cleanup to proceed. They grapple with everything from digging up trenches with radioactive garbage to protecting Native American cultural sites.
Last year, Mattson spent nearly 500 hours in meetings and conference calls. The majority of her friends in Seattle didn't even know what Hanford was before she started telling them about it. It's taken years for her to understand most of what's was going on in the meetings.
"Who's going to be here 50 years from now? People laugh but I think it's a real situation that I don't think is being adequately addressed. I think until people start dying which is a pretty morbid way to think about it, it doesn't feel urgent."
Mattson's honest with herself. She says she wants kids some day and given the time commitment she's not sure she’ll stick it out with Hanford for the rest of her life. Still, given the longevity of the issue, maybe her kids, grandkids or even great, great grandkids will pick up the baton.