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  • Writer's pictureAdrian Monty

The Hanford Plaintiffs Book Review

Trisha T. Pritikin. The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice.

Introduction by Karen Dorn Steele. Foreword by Richard V. Eymann and Tom H. Folds.

xv + 364 pp., notes, index. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020. $28.95 (paper);

ISBN 9780700629046. Cloth and e-book available.

For those who are baffled by totalitarianism or who wonder at the decay of trust in institutions related to science, public health, and justice, Trisha Pritikin’s new book traces these developments with 20/20 hindsight. The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice commemorates the malfeasance and secrecy that led to “killing our own” seventy-five years after nuclear weapons destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pritikin gives voice to twenty-four atomic abuse survivors who sought a remedy for their suffering, which was produced along with the plutonium, by the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.

Pritikin stalks the porous connection between ecology and human bodies in a manner reminiscent of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. “The fetus is me,” she writes, by way of introducing herself as a Hanford Downwinder (p. 23). Pritikin is a living record of harm from the radiation that seeped into her mother’s womb. She shakes loose and details the medical maladies and nightmares suffered by Hanford Downwinders despite decades of denial.

The late JayMullen’s oral history captures the irony of this denial. Mullen’s father, while serving in the Pacific in World War II, wrote home that the atomic bombs averted deaths—perhaps his own—from a dreaded land invasion of Japan. But little did Mullen’s father know that his son and family back home, more than two hundred miles northeast of Hanford at Farragut Naval Station in Idaho, were “irradiated by the very thing he thought was defending him” (p. 53). This further reveals the deception of “nuclear security.”

Pritikin is a lawyer and a plaintiff. The book begins with an introduction by the journalist Karen Dorn Steele, who broke the silence about the suspected health effects of Hanford as a reporter in 1985, before it was widely known that both accidental and intentional releases of radioactive pollution had occurred since the 1940s. The bulk of the book concerns the resulting litigation between Hanford Downwinders and U.S. government nuclear contractors. Some of Pritikin’s main points shed light on how the government constantly deceived and failed to protect the region, including the unborn, children, and even Hanford workers’ families, long after the crisis of World War II. Pritikin prosecutes her case with vital oral histories of Downwinders, testifying time and time again how U.S. citizens were unknowingly in harm’s way as “America’s forgotten guinea pigs.”

Presenting the seemingly redundant stories of the plaintiffs is not a mistake. Pritikin is demonstrating the veracity of Downwinder stories, in stark contrast to the inconsistency and veiling of the truth by government officials and scientists. The devastating result for the Hanford Downwinders from a quarter century of litigation is contrasted with the more successful Nevada Test Site Downwinders suits. Pritikin encloses the oral histories and analysis in damning context, showing the inequities of the judicial system and the scientific studies used to discredit the claims of plaintiffs.

While the reader cannot avoid the litany of pain and betrayal, there is also mercy in the Downwinders’ resilience. We meet Jamie Weaver, who, like so many lambs downwind, was born without eyes. Weaver went on to earn a doctorate in music history. We also see the gruesome crater in Susan Ward’s cheek from cancer being no longer visible once she grows older. We find the story of the late Marlene Campbell, whose fingers looked like twisted windmill blades whirling in opposite directions, who taught her students as long as she could. Their stories escape the interlocking injustices that prevent accountability.

Pritikin’s main quest is to heal. Along with memorializing Downwinder stories, she argues for better medical training and equitable treatment of civilians as a “special exposure cohort” for future reparations. Pritikin ultimately wants proper medical research, care, and compensation to be distributed to nuclear victims. This book intersects with disability studies and with the history of medicine’s patient narratives to join the relentless literature about the contamination found at every step of nuclear technology. The mining,

milling, production, use, testing, storage, and generational “cleanup” all involve disproportionate exposure of Indigenous peoples and people of color worldwide. What does it mean when even those who had the capacity to sue cannot right this wrong? Although the stories in this book may seem shrouded in the old contaminated dust of the past, they reveal much about the time in which we currently live.

In the midst of a global pandemic, with an invisible contaminate, during a nostalgic return to the production of nuclear weapons, Pritikin’s book demonstrates how public health crises result in disproportionate sacrifices among those with less power. Reading The Hanford Plaintiffs in this time makes it difficult not to see connections between government denials of harm throughout the Cold War and today’s victims of COVID-19, especially those who are immunocompromised, like the radiation exposed. We are witnessing once again how the U.S. government reacts to harm being done to its citizens. This is what impunity looks like.

Adrian Monty

Linda Marie Richards

Adrian Monty earned an M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities from Oregon State University in 2019. Her thesis focused on American nuclear history and used the personal stories of those exposed to nuclear radiation collected as part of NSF Project 1734618, “Reconstructing Nuclear Environments and the Downwinders Case.”

Linda Marie Richards, co–principal investigator for NSF Project 1734618, writes and teaches at Oregon State University about the places where nuclear history, human rights, environmental justice, and nonviolence converge. She teaches full time as a Senior Instructor.

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