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In her long career as an investigative reporter, Karen Dorn Steele unmasked nuclear secrecy and won a series of major national reporting awards for The Spokesman-Review, Spokane’s daily newspaper.

Some of her most significant work involved reporting on national security topics. In the 1980s, she broke the long-suppressed story of Hanford’s radiation

Inside Hanford's B Reactor where the plutonium for the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 was produced
Inside Hanford's B Reactor where the plutonium for the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 was produced
emissions during World War II and the Cold War – including the secret exposures of downwind civilian populations in the 1940s and ‘50s and the Green Run, a 1949 military experiment that deliberately spread dangerous radiation throughout the inland northwest with no public warning.

During the 1986-87 academic year, based on her Hanford reporting, Dorn Steele held joint appointments at Stanford University, where she was a Stanford Knight Fellow in an international program for mid-career journalists and an Arms Control Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Arms Control.

In 1992, she was awarded a year-long research grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Program on Peace and International Cooperation, enabling her to travel to Siberia to visit the former Soviet Union’s Hanford equivalent near Chelyabinsk, where workers and citizens were also exposed to radiation during the nuclear arms race.

After the federal government was forced to begin cleaning up Hanford’s legacy of nuclear contamination, she and colleague Jim Lynch won the 1994 George Polk Award for Environmental Reporting and the Gerald Loeb Award for a five-part series on squandered taxpayer money in the $7.5 billion Hanford cleanup, which continues today at the cost of $1 billion a year.

She later worked on other national security topics, including the controversial role of two Spokane-based psychologists in the CIA’s “renditioning” and torture programs post-9/11 and the operations of the National Security Agency’s large monitoring station near Yakima, Washington. She also covered police reform issues and wrote stories that triggered the recall of a controversial Spokane mayor, Jim West, on her investigative reporting beat.

Courtesy of Spokesman-Review cartoonist Milt Priggee
Courtesy of Spokesman-Review cartoonist Milt Priggee
She took a buyout from The Spokesman-Review in 2009. Her volunteer activities including serving on the board of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and as advocacy chair for Spokane Preservation Advocates, a historic preservation group. In 2016, she was elected co-president of the Spokane Alliance, a 27,000-member group working for social and economic change, after working with the group to pass the city’s first mandatory Sick & Safe Leave ordinance. That new law, approved by the Spokane City Council in January 2016, has provided earned sick and safe leave to 40,000 low-income workers in the city since 2017.

In March 2018, she was honored with a “Watershed Hero” award from the Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia Chapter and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy for her reporting career, including her Hanford work and investigative stories on the massive pollution of the Upper Columbia River by Teck Cominco, a large Canadian smelter located in Trail, B.C.

In 2019, Dorn Steele collaborated on a book on Hanford’s radiation victims with attorney Trisha Pritkin. The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices From The Fight For Atomic Justice was published in 2020 by the University Press of Kansas. It has won seven awards for non-fiction, including from the Nautilus Book Awards and the San Francisco, Los Angeles, New England and Paris, France Book Festivals.

Dorn Steele graduated with honors in history from Stanford University and holds a master’s degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley. She has two daughters and is married to Richard D. Steele, PhD.