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  • Writer's pictureAdrian Monty

The Poisonous Plumes of Hanford

“The government was giving out fingernail polish, so the kids could cover up the cracks and the openings and the fissures in their fingernails.” Patricia (Pat) Hoover recounts a time when men in white lab coats came to her junior high health class in Hermiston, Oregon in the 1950s. No one knew the reason for the questions they asked or the data they collected, or who had sent them. Pat and the other members of her class were born downstream from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. In Pat’s case, she was born downstream via the Columbia River and, as the name suggests, ultimately downwind from the nuclear site.

“Hanford went online in 1944 and it was part of the Manhattan Project and it was a secret.” Decades later, Pat knows all about Hanford’s experiments and activities. The Manhattan Project developed due to the impending fear of Germany gaining the skills and knowledge required to build an atomic bomb. Included in this project were three sites established around the country: Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee, a bomb-manufacturing site in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford Engineer Works in Hanford, Washington. Hanford’s role in the Project was to produce the plutonium nitrate buttons which would go into nuclear bombs.

Pat is just one of many who are telling their stories for the NSF Grant funded Project: Reconstructing Nuclear Environments and the Downwinders Case. The scholars who are part of this project, Dr. Jacob Hamblin and Dr. Linda Richards at Oregon State University, are working to collect and archive oral histories from people who were involved, in one way or another, in our country’s nuclear history. More specifically, many of the individuals interviewed were part of or affected by the work done at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Southeast Washington on the Columbia River.

“The information about what was happening in southeastern Washington State at that nuclear facility was kept from the public so there was nothing that could have led my family to believe that any of the health issues with my sister and I could be related to Hanford.” Pat’s thyroid gland stopped working at the age of eleven. “And of course, no one knew why.”

Many members of the Tri-City area, consisting of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, Washington were proud of the Hanford facility and the work it was doing for their country. It was the source of most of the jobs in the area and allowed people to live out the American Dream in the Pacific Northwest. Richland High School was the Home of the Bombers, with a mushroom cloud billowing proudly as their school logo.

An article published in The Oregonian in 1985 by Spencer Heinz titled “Pride, nuclear economics bolster life in Tri-Cities: Residents grew up with Atom,” discusses the normalization of the facility’s presence in the everyday life of this area. “Mushroom clouds and other nuclear illustrations are not political statements designed like peace symbols to persuade; they are simply backgrounds, like the areas Sagebrush and jackrabbits and cotton candy clouds.”

Still today in the town of Richland, the theme of pride for atomic heritage persists. Many businesses have turned to radioactive themes including “Atomic Ale,” which features many nuclear themes drinks and menu items. Less subtle are the images of the atom on signs for local furniture stores and cafes.

Although there are those who remain proud of Hanford and its nuclear accomplishments, Pat, and many others who lived downwind of Hanford in the 40s, have been medically affected by the Hanford Test Site. These health issues ranged from thyroid cancer to miscarriages and developmental problems. Pat did not know the reason behind the myriad illnesses afflicting her and her neighbors until 1990 when she watched a special about Hanford on PBS.

Although not the only intentional release, The Green Run was the spark of secret activity which turned Pat and others into a collective group known as The Downwinders. Aptly named, this group of individuals grew up living downwind from the Hanford facility. There are groups of downwinders all over the globe due to nuclear activity. Chernobyl, Three-Mile, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and others - all of the people who lived to tell the tales of these events are downwinders in their own way and have worked tirelessly to tell the world their stories.

This experiment was kept secret almost half a century. On December 2nd, 1949 thousands of curies of radioactive iodine and xenon were intentionally cast out of Hanford’s plumes and into the winter Washington air.

There was no way for Pat to have discovered the cause of her ailments before she did. Pat and the rest of the world remained ignorant of these tests within Hanford until the declassification of 19,000 documents in 1986. These documents were released as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by citizen groups formed in the Pacific Northwest. Groups of people from around Washington and Oregon worked on submitting the Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Energy due to the impending possibility of Hanford becoming a deep waste repository plant.

The idea of finding a single site for a nuclear waste repository plant for the US has been in play for decades. Options for this plant included Hanford in Washington, Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Ultimately, due to pushback by the communities in each possible site, Yucca Mountain was chosen as the Deep Waste Repository Site. However, as exemplified by John D’Agata in his work, About a Mountain, even this Nevada mountain is not a plausible option for storage. In all actuality, nowhere is a good place to store all of this waste.

However, since it has to go somewhere, the waste produced at Hanford is currently sitting in colosseum-sized tanks underground. The new goal at Hanford is to treat the millions of gallons of radioactive waste that resulted from the rush to pile up a nuclear arsenal during the Cold War in an effort to protect the United States from a possible enemy strike. With the new Waste Treatment Plant, to be completed as early as 2022, the nuclear waste will be mixed with molten glass in a process called vitrification in order to essentially immobilize the radioactivity of the waste.

Nuclear waste is considered ‘hot’ due to its radioactivity. In the containers at Hanford, this is mainly in the form of a radioactive sludge, composed of corrosion products and the nuclear particles leftover from the production of plutonium-239. These products have half-lives of 24,000 years. In order for it to ‘cool’ to a ‘safe’ temperature, it needs as many as 10,000 years to decay, maybe even more. This number is a source of contention due to its seemingly random nature and the fact that no one around today will be there once this waste eventually cools. Additionally, these radioactive materials cannot simply be contained by a rocky prison. The chemicals are able to bypass the smallest natural pores and wear away at our strongest attempts to hold it all back.

This idea of storing nuclear waste is another issue in it of itself. Xorandor, a sci-fi novel published in 1986 by Christine Brooke-Rose, offers a solution to this problem: a computeroid sentient rock being from Mars whose source of food is nuclear waste. Although a fun read and a one-step solution to this issue, Xorandor has not come to the U.S. to gobble up its tanks of nuclear waste.

Jim Thomas, a nuclear activist and a founding member of the Hanford Education Action League (HEAL) discusses what this proposal for a nuclear waste plant would mean for the Pacific Northwest. “If Hanford would have been selected as the high-level waste repository, this would be accepting waste primarily from a spent fuel from nuclear power reactors – commercial power reactors – most of which are east of the Mississippi.” In order for the waste to get to Hanford, it would have to travel through Spokane and other major cities. HEAL took action to prevent that.

Jim Thomas was born in Montana in 1954 and spent much of his life in Spokane and Seattle, Washington. His journey to HEAL began when he signed up for a peace pilgrimage to Bethlehem from Seattle. He had learned about the Trident Submarines that would be based in Puget Sound and recalls the fears he had about the nuclear vessels being so close to home. “Over 200 nuclear warheads were able to be loaded onto the – I think 24 missiles on the Trident submarine – and the destructive capacity of that was huge.” He discusses his motivations for going on a seven-thousand-mile walk: “We were both in actuality and symbolically turning our backs on the Trident submarine base and nuclear death that that represented… Our main goal was to have the religions of the world, especially the Christian Denominations to make statements against nuclear weapons.”

When Jim got back from his pilgrimage, he realized the problem was only getting worse. “Less than 2 months before I got back, Hanford had restarted its Plutonium operations, which had been shut down since the ‘70s for producing more Plutonium for use in President Reagan’s nuclear weapons buildup. So here I was, coming back from Bethlehem, having spent an intensive 20 months being focused on nuclear weapons, and almost in my backyard here is a key component of the problem.” He reached out to fellow activists in the area and formed the group that was later to be known as HEAL.

Not only did HEAL get information about Hanford to prevent an impending crisis, the declassified documents that came out of the FOIA request also revealed the secret releases, including The Green Run.

Hanford’s role in the Manhattan Project was to produce the fission product, Plutonium. Fission is the chemical process of splitting the nucleus of a molecule which releases energy and forms radionuclide products such as Plutonium as well as Caesium-137 and Iodine-131. The most known element here being iodine, as it is used in a variety of medical practices. It is typically used in small, measured doses to treat and monitor tumors. When received in large doses, the results are much less benign.

A curie, named for Pierre and Marie Curie, is a radioactivity unit. It is difficult to visualize what one curie exactly is. Usually recorded in decimal points, a curie stands for the decay rate of a radioactive element. Other units are used to measure exposure (roentgens) and others are used to measure dose.

Some doses of radiation are considered safe for the body, in terms of small doses done on purpose and consensually in chemotherapy. When exposed to a large number of radioactive elements, the body reacts in various ways. A common indicator is loss of thyroid function along with tumors lining the thyroid. Another common symptom of exposure to radioactive iodine is infertility. The government and scientists knew that one telltale sign would be a change in fingernail growth. They made sure to cover it up.

The operators at Hanford, along with the US Department of Energy (DOE), wanted to test their ability to detect the release of radioactive chemical elements. This way, if other countries around the world were working with plutonium and other radioactive materials, the US would have a way to know. They released thousands of curies of iodine-131 along with other fission products into the environment periodically between 1947 and the mid-1950s so that they could see if they were able to detect their own releases. Stated by investigative journalist Karen Dorn-Steele in 1988,

Radioactive iodine 131 can do insidious damage... The body treats it like free iodine, sending it straight to the thyroid gland, where it can damage hormone production or even cause cancer after a decade or two. Because children’s thyroids pick up iodine about 50 times more quickly than adults’, they are far more vulnerable to damage and eventual disease.

Once the word got out about the forty years of activity at Hanford, the DOE began to cover its tracks by putting together a Technical Steering Panel (TSP). The TSP was responsible for directing The Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project, or HEDR, which formed in 1988. Its goal was to figure out how much radiation people absorbed during Hanford’s activity and the Green Run. The appointed chair of this panel was nuclear engineer John Till. The job of Till and others working on this project was to find individuals who were children at the time of the event and recreate doses through dosimetry based on location. Dosimetry, more specifically Radiation Dosimetry, is a process used in the field of Health Physics in which scientists work to figure out how much radiation someone or something may have absorbed. Many people absorbed radiation from the milk they drank as the cows in nearby dairy farms ate contaminated grass. Through this process of dosimetry, they can use mathematical models to virtually recalculate the doses released by Hanford and absorbed into the environment and the individuals in the area.

It may be difficult to hear the Downwinder story and not consider John Till and the members of the DOE as the antagonists to our Downwinder protagonists. We want to root for the underdog, the one who was wronged. But in their heart of hearts, the members of this panel and others acting on the side of the government, were trying their best to come up with answers in the only way they knew how: science.

John Till, nuclear engineer and chair of the TSP, worked on HEDR. The HEDR project worked on attempting to recreate the environment of the Green Run and other intentional releases done by Hanford. Since the documents from Hanford had been declassified, the members of the project were able to do so as accurately as possible. To recreate the environment of the releases, Till and other members of the project calculated the amount of radiation put into the atmosphere, looked at how much would be absorbed by grass, how much of that would be absorbed by the dairy cows, and how much of that would be in the cows’ milk. They used computer model scenarios to determine whether the radiation releases could have been the cause of Downwinder ailments.

John Till was born and raised in South Carolina where his grandparents owned a dairy farm. When it came time to sell the farm, he couldn’t let it go. “Now, I didn’t plan to go back to the dairy farm, but I knew I did not want this place sold. Any farm that you’re attached to, it is part of your heart, your soul, and I really didn’t want this place to get sold.” He and his wife Susan moved to the farm in the late 70s and Till started his company, Risk Assessment Corporation.

Till was always interested in science, even though he started out as a military man. “I started out in the Navy as an officer and went to submarine school in the Nuclear Power Program and served onboard a nuclear submarine. There was something that struck me...I got very interested in radiation exposure to humans. And even in particular at the time, while I’m serving on this submarine, was this idea of where radioactive materials go when they are released to the environment and how can we calculate a radiation dose. I have no idea why that I was fixated on learning more about that.” Till was so interested in this idea that he went on to study Radiation Biology and received a PhD in Nuclear Engineering.

John Till does this for a living. He has a bachelor’s degree in Radiation Biology and a PhD in Nuclear Engineering. He also has his own business where he and other scientists look at traces of radiation in the environment and assesses its possibility of harm. This is why he was elected to be the chair of the Technical Steering Panel all those years ago.

Till explains going about the process of environmental dose reconstruction which inspired him and a colleague to publish a book, Radiological Assessment, in 1983. “We would be studying something like an environmental impact statement, for example, where a facility is going to release certain amounts of materials to the environment, right?” An environmental impact statement is a document filed with the EPA that discloses any activity which may affect the environment. “And, in order to do that, you need different disciplines of science. You need nuclear engineers to figure out how much stuff is going to come out, you need atmospheric dispersion modelers to figure out- if it goes out the stack, where does it go into the environment? You need aquatic biologists, you need biologists who study the uptake of radioactive materials into food products. And then you need dosimetry people, if you are going to ingest the stuff or breathe in the stuff, you need specialists in dosimetry.” As explained by Till, there’s a lot that goes into this process, these scientists didn’t go into it all willy-nilly, hoping to come up with an answer that will make people happy. They wanted results, no matter the consequences.

However, there is such a thing as scientific inaccuracies. Science functions on hypothesis and theories, having few laws to point to. Studies like HEDR and HTDS did their best to look at something which occurred decades prior in order to come up with answers to a problem, without a time turner in their back pockets. Their answers just weren’t good enough based on what the public was witnessing.

This idea is explored in a couple papers which refute the studies done by the CDC. A paper titled, “The Hanford Thyroid Disease Study: An Alternative View of the Findings” discusses the rates of uncertainty involved in the HTDS and argues that the rates of statistical uncertainty in the original study are too high to come to a feasible conclusion, as the original study did. Rates of uncertainty are common in many fields of science.

There was certainly a question of credibility surrounding this study since it was arranged by the government. “Well, we’re going to do our very best to make this a credible study and make sure that all of the questions are answered so that you will believe them.” John Till responded to questions from journalist Karen Dorn-Steele about the panel’s credibility at the time of the formation of the study.

“We came up with policies that said this would be an open study.” The plan Till had to make the study more credible was to open the doors of the study to the public. They had workshops where members of HEAL and other citizens could watch what the scientists in the study were doing and have a better understanding of the project.

Karen Dorn Steele, a reporter for the Spokane Washington newspaper, The Spokesman Review, was the primary journalist investigating the events dealing with Hanford in the 80s and forward. Dorn-Steele was also the reporter who questioned Till about the credibility of the study. In an article published in 1988, soon after the release of the documents via the FOIA, she wrote, “The Department [of Energy] said it needed to have control of the study in order to defend itself against the lawsuit.”

Although the findings of these studies were officially released as inconclusive, the stance of the CDC and the DOE is that health issues faced by members of the surrounding communities were not correlated to the iodine releases from Hanford. In order to come to these conclusions, the members of the Technical Steering Panel, including Till, and others involved in HEDR and the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study (HTDS) created a mathematical model to reconstruct the doses of radioactive iodine which the surrounding area would have been exposed to at the time of the Green Run. The results of the projects presumed to show that the doses were considered a safe amount and would not be harmful to those exposed in the surrounding areas.

Jim Thomas comments on this study thirty years later: “Most of the scientists there that would be doing dose reconstruction are the ones that wrote the environmental reports for the last 10-30 years and so they are basically checking their own work.”

The lawsuit Dorn-Steele refers to was between Downwinders and the DOE. When the papers were released, and members of the public learned of the Green Run and other activities at Hanford, the citizen-formed groups worked together to sue the government for the damages done to them.

However, Pat and the other Downwinders had other ideas about the study and its results. They put together their own survey. With the help of the Downwinders Coalition and HEAL, Pat was able to identify more Downwinders and get health surveys out to them.

“We formed the Northwest Radiation Health Alliance, and eventually we decided that we needed to do our own survey.” Pat discusses the efforts needed to put together the survey, the myriad people involved in the process, including scientists and activists. “It was just a grassroots effort to survey and show that something is wrong in the Pacific Northwest on the east side near Hanford and all of these people have been damaged.”

The results are much different than the studies that came out of HEDR and Pat and the Downwinders say that this survey was an integral part of providing proof for their claims of afflictions from Hanford. “The Northwest Radiation Health Alliance was a key part after the release of the documents in assisting Downwinders in having validation for who they were and what they had happen to their bodies and not just be anecdotal stories that of course the government and the doctors were-- most allelopathic doctors were saying ‘this is just a figment of your imagination.’”

After a lifetime of struggling with her health and finding no tangible cause, Pat Hoover was finally able to prove that her cancer was a direct result of the secret activities of Hanford. Secrets can only stay hidden for so long, even when they’re being kept by the U.S. government.

“It was planned deception of the people of the United States by our government to put in these nuclear facilities and basically hide that and keep it secret for as long as they could.”

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