Contamination in Eastern Washington

It was a sunny day in Eastern Washington, and General Frank Matthias was on a search for mediocrity.

Matthias was on the market for a site that would become the first plutonium plant, designed to supply the Manhattan Project with the essential ingredient for producing a nuclear bomb. The year was 1942, three years before the United States would drop atomic bombs in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II fighting in the pacific. Hanford, Washington, a small farming community, impressed him.

“Matthias settled on Hanford for the world’s first plutonium plant because it possessed the features he sought,” wrote historian Kate Brown in her 2013 book Plutopia. “Plentiful water supply from the Columbia River, a sure source of electricity [from the Grand Coulee Dam], a high percentage of government-owned land, and a certain scent of of failure.”

The Beginnings of a Nuclear Community

This “scent of failure” would make it easier, in Matthias’s eyes, to remove existing communities and create new ones. These included both local small farmers and the Wanapum tribe, who had lived on this land for thousands of years and never signed a treaty with the U.S. government.

For the remaining eight years of the 1940s, thousands of workers from all over the United States descended on this patch of Eastern Washington land to create a vast and secret plant designed to manufacture nuclear ingredients. As the Cold War heated up in the years following the end of WWII, so did production at Hanford.

The immense plant required large numbers of workers, both white and blue collar, and places for them to live. The Tri-Cities were born and solidified in Hanford’s early years as distinct pockets of identities.

In Richland, the distinct “model” community built through government contracts, white-collar workers enjoyed subsidized housing and generously funded public schools. Lower level workers were excluded, delegated to neighboring communities in Kennewick and Pasco.

Race played a significant role in the divides. Latino and black workers were pushed to Pasco, without the cheap housing and glossy infrastructure their neighbors enjoyed.

“The Manhattan Project officials introduced racial segregation to Eastern Washington,” wrote Brown. “Racial discrimination wasn’t so much a decision as a non-decision, a default practice, ingrained, trusted, unquestioned.”

These divides continued throughout Hanford’s activity in the next decades. Whitman senior Caitlin Foster’s grandparents worked for Hanford, and raised their families there. When they made moved to the site in the 1950s, they chose Kennewick.

“Both sides of my family actively chose not to live in Richland,” said Foster. “My grandpa didn’t want to be part of that ‘camp’ atmosphere.”

As the Cold War and the unique 1950s American patriotism began taking root in the nation’s suburbs, Richland heeded the call. Residents bowled at Atomic Lanes, attended Atomic Frontier Day festivals, and ate at restaurants with names like Fission Chips.

The prosperity didn’t come cheap. The federal government devoted millions of dollars to maintaining a community that epitomized the 1950s American suburban values of manicured lawns, good public schools, and an unquestioning faith in Cold War efforts to maintain safety.

“It wasn’t a hard sell– nuclear weapons for nuclear-family prosperity,” Brown writes.

This community identity, and a perceived overwhelming patriotism, was palpable to Foster’s family, and led them to choose Kennewick as their home..

“My mom’s family talks about the early ‘60s and the destructive kind of patriotism they saw in Richland. There’s just such a weird culture surrounding it.”

With Richland’s suburban prosperity in the backdrop, Hanford’s engineers and blue-collar workers quietly churned out millions of tons of plutonium. Though government scientists continuously monitored residents’ health and assured them of safety, much was still unknown about radiation’s effects. And what scientists did know, they often didn’t disclose.

Contamination and its Consequences

Throughout its 40 years of plutonium production, Hanford scientists both intentionally and unintentionally released radioactive gases into the atmosphere. The 1949 “Green Run” is the most significant of these intentional releases. Scientists hoped to better understand how radioactive pollutants would distribute across the Columbia Basin, and 11,000 curies of radioactivity were released from the plant (significantly more than the planned 4,000).

In September of 1949, June Casey was settling into Whitman College for her first year. When she returned home to the Dalles, OR., for winter break, her family noticed visible changes in her appearance. Her hair was thinning, and she experienced extreme fatigue. A doctor diagnosed her with hypothyroidism.

Though it’s impossible to say unequivocally that June’s condition resulted from the Green Run and her proximity to it as a Whitman student, a few things are clear. Scientists know that thyroid problems and nuclear radiation are correlated. From Chernobyl to Manhattan Project sites in Nevada, radiated communities experience significantly greater rates of thyroid cancers and disease. Though it affects people in different ways, it’s unlikely that June, a previously healthy 17 year old, could have developed these problems independently of Hanford’s releases.

“Downwinder” communities in Eastern Washington have greater levels of health problems than the general population. In the 1980s, after a series of investigative articles in the Spokesman-Review revealed Hanford’s history of radioactive releases, faulty science, and a failure to disclose serious safety threats, hundreds began pushing for government acknowledgement.

“The downwinders had to prove that the types of cancer, and the incidents of cancer in that area, were higher than what you would expect in the normal population,” said Professor of Anthropology Jason Pribilsky, who has written about Hanford and Downwinder activism and has incorporated many of their stories into a course on cancer last year. “That’s a very high bar.”

One of the problems advocates face is this difficulty to prove unequivocal correlation between their ailments and radiation. Health problems often don’t emerge until decades after exposure.

“Many people in the Pacific Northwest were getting sick at around the time of the [Spokesman-Review articles],” said Trisha Pritiken, a former Whitman student and Downwinder advocate who was raised in Richland during Hanford’s productive height. “Latency periods often follow this type of exposure before diseases show up. The only thing all these people had in common was that they had lived downwind of Hanford, primarily during childhood.”

Despite the obstacles, many downwinders and former Hanford employees have still successfully sued the Department of Energy (DOE). In 2000, the federal government began paying settlements to former Hanford employees of up to $150,000, following a study that showed significantly higher rates of certain cancers.  A 28 year-long lawsuit involving 3,500 downwinders ended last October. All either dropped their claims or reached a settlement.

Pritiken was one of the plaintiffs in the decades-long case. Despite the ultimate victory, the lengthy process, small settlements and a continued government unwillingness to research radiation and health ailments leave advocates like her feeling disregarded.

The plaintiffs counsel were virtually bankrupted by having to support the litigation over so many years,” she said. “The defense ran up something like 80 million in billable hours. This is really a tough thing for Downwinders to accept- our own taxpayer dollars funding the defense against our personal injury suits.”

Priticken’s own family has been hit hard by health ailments. Both of her parents passed away due to cancer, and both had thyroid conditions. Today, she suffers from autoimmune thyroiditis, has hypoparathyroidism, fatigue, digestive problems, allergies, and headaches. She recently unsuccessfully sued the DOE to fund medical monitoring for Hanford.

The ailment profiles of advocates like Pritiken and the long but successful suit against the DOE should be sources of serious inquiry and examination, according to researchers like Pribilsky.

“You would think this would make the front page of the New York Times,” he said. “That downwinders have been compensated, and that the Department of Energy admitted wrongdoing.”

Hanford Now

On April 17, alarms went off at Hanford. A double walled tank, AY-102, had begun leaking radioactive waste into the annulus, the space between the primary and secondary walls. Officials were quick to inform the public that no seepage had made in into the surrounding environment, nor did it pose a risk to nearby communities.

A half dozen single-shelled tanks have been confirmed as leaking, whereas more than 50 more are under investigation and being closely monitored. Nearly half of the 117 tanks on site are questionably effective at storing radioactive waste of varying levels at this time. Though this might sound alarming to an outsider, residents of the Tri-Cities have grown accustomed to their nuclear neighbor. 

“Hanford is kind of a funny thing because where I grew up, Richland, there’s nothing really special about it and kind of like the defining characteristic of my city is the Manhattan Project, or Hanford,” said first-year Mickey Shin. “And so growing up whenever you read a history textbook, you try and identify yourself in there. And so, in our class, it would be like ‘Oh, atom bombs, that’s us!’”

This identification with Hanford, due in large part to its central role in the economy of the Tri-Cities generally and Richland in particular, still extends into every aspect of life. Today, many Richland families are employed by Hanford or an associated industry. Richland High School’s mascot, The Bombers, has come under scrutiny for its proud association with the mushroom cloud. Of course, not every local appreciates this casual attitude towards the nuclear project.

“Once the Cold War started to wind down, once any kind of romantic idea about nuclear security tapered off, so did the domesticity and the prosperity, this whole suburban image surrounded the Tri-Cities started to taper away,” said Caitlin Foster. “It became less and less financially prosperous, and the town started to die a little bit. Part of it was that [my grandparents] both retired, and they asked ‘Why are we here?’”

Both Shin and Foster came to Whitman with prior knowledge of the role Hanford had played in the past of Eastern Washington. Alissa Cordner, an Assistant Professor of Sociology who specialized in toxicity scholarship, was quickly initiated into the nuclear culture upon arriving in Walla Walla in the fall of 2013. She now serves on the Hanford Advisory Board, a stakeholder committee who advises the Tri-Parties (Washington State, the United States Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency).

“Here in Walla Walla, we thankfully are not downriver, which is really great, but we are downwind and in addition to the constant radioactive emissions that happened during the course of Hanford’s operations, there were a couple of really notable episodes [of] intentional and secret contamination of downwind areas,” said Cordner, “So there certainly are questions about whether there is long term contamination of soil, of roofs, of homes in the Walla Walla region and everywhere that’s down wind even as far away as Spokane.”*

Questions linger about how Hanford affects Eastern Washington. Although a downwinder community has formed around exposure to carcinogenic emissions from Hanford, it remains difficult to prove connections between ill-health and Hanford. The evidence is, from a scientific standpoint, inconclusive. Cordner believed this may be by design.

“The wine industry does not want people to study the radioactivity of wine…that’s a classic or a common feature in environmental health controversies,” said Cordner, “If you don’t study something, then there’s no data, which means there’s no evidence that something is potentially problematic.”

For now, a fog shrouds the implications of Hanford for the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla, and the rest of Eastern Washington.

“I would just encourage people to learn as much about Hanford as they possibly can because I think it’s something that whatever your level of awareness, it impacts us here in terms of long term health of the community, in terms of long term health of our tourist industry which is so central to the Walla Walla economy, but also just as people who are residents of the U.S. it’s really important to understand the long term impacts of our military history and that’s what Hanford is,” said Cordner.

Nuclear Futures?

The Hanford Advisory Board and Tri-Parties are continuously working to make Hanford less dangerous to the communities around it. Part of that process includes plans for a long-term repository and a vitrification facility, where high level waste could be stabilized into glass for future storage.

“They’re never given that full appropriation and so every year you just fall further and further behind. And you’re running into situations where you  don’t have a certain amount of money to maintain the roads that gets you around Hanford so down the line you’re going to have a more expensive bill to rebuild roads,” said Cordner, “We’re just delaying the cost and pushing it off to future generations.”

On November 15th, 2015, the Department of Energy and the National Parks Service officially created the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. The park unites three Manhattan Project sites– Hanford, Los Alamos, TX., and Oakridge, TN., in a narrative of nuclear history rooted in the end of WWII.

“The story that the National Park Service has decided to go with is that this was inevitable, it ended the war, nuclear weaponry is awful but it’s a reality, and we learned our lesson,” said Pribilsky. “The entire downwinder story, the side effects, are not included in this story. And no one in that community has been consulted about it.”

Downwinder activists are pushing for greater recognition through groups like Consequences of Radioactive Exposure (CORE), of which Pribilsky is on the board. Though currently comprised mostly of Hanford downwinders, the group is in the process of expanding its membership to include affected downwinder populations near Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Fukushima, Chernobyl, and other American Manhattan Project Communities. The group hopes to create a museum to document these histories, and offer an alternative to the federal narrative.

Substantive change is happening, if slowly and incompletely. But for most people affected by Hanford, the way forward seems more simple than all the bureaucracy and organizations can make it seem.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. There’s a lot of uncertainty about whether the pump and treat facility will allow for adequate groundwater treatment so the contamination doesn’t reach the Columbia,” said Cordner, “They’re running into really a significant challenges every year they say.”

*Although Cordner is a member of the HAB, the views she shares are her own