The federal judge handling the huge Hanford downwinders’ lawsuit is keeping secret a report that sharply criticizes a $27 million, taxpayer-funded study of past radiation releases from the nuclear reservation.
The study is flawed and may underestimate radiation doses to people living near Hanford, according to the courtappointed scientist who wrote the critique.
U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald of Yakima sealed the report by Thomas Pigford before it was submitted to the court last month.
Pigford is a nationally known nuclear engineer and retired professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He sits on three National Academy of Sciences panels studying post-Cold War nuclear issues.
Pigford was hired as a special “scientific master” to help the court determine whether the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction study is valid to use in the downwinders’ litigation.
Thousands of people are suing Hanford’s past contractors, claiming radiation releases caused their health problems.
Pigford’s conclusions, reviewed by The Spokesman-Review, cast doubts on the dose study’s reliability for the lawsuit in McDonald’s court.
Attorneys for both sides in the Hanford case chose Pigford last year as a neutral scientist.
Under McDonald’s order, the attorneys are prohibited under threat of contempt from discussing Pigford’s report.
Pigford said Thursday he didn’t know his report was sealed.
“I wish I could talk to you about it, but I’m supposed to follow the rules of the court,” he said from his home in Oakland.
McDonald would not explain why he is withholding the report. His order to seal it, issued last April, said it “eventually” would be made public.
“The judge cannot make any comment at this time,” said his clerk, Tom Monaghan.
McDonald’s order is improper, said a prominent Seattle environmental lawyer not associated with the Hanford case.
“The judge is behaving despicably in this case. This is a very critical report on the most important toxic tort issue in the United States,” said Leonard Schroeter, a senior partner in Schroeter, Goldmark and Bender.
Schroeter, a founder of the national public interest law group Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, has been briefed on the contents of Pigford’s report.
“I can’t conceive of any societal interest that is served by keeping this secret,” he said.
Pigford’s critique may have implications for another federal study of thyroid disease among people exposed to the Hanford releases.
If the estimated Hanford doses are inaccurate, it would throw off the results of the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study, said Scott Davis, an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
The study is trying to find out whether there is a higher-thannormal incidence of thyroid disease among people exposed to radioactive iodine 131 from Hanford.
“If the doses are really wrong, we are going to come up with the wrong conclusions,” Davis said.
The dose study’s major findings were released last April after seven years of work.
The study concluded that people living within 20 miles of Hanford got less radiation than previously estimated. But it revised upwards exposures to people living farther away in a 75,000-square-mile area - including Spokane and North Idaho.
Battelle’s Pacific Northwest Laboratory at Hanford conducted the study. It was directed by an independent panel of scientists not associated with Battelle, a nuclear contractor.
The judge must use the dose study, the first of its kind at a U.S. weapons site, to assess whether people who lived near Hanford deserve compensation for health problems.
In addition to problems with the iodine dose estimates, Battelle’s computer models don’t account for radiation “hot spots” caused by topography, Pigford’s report concluded. The study also ignored the impact of “hot particles” emitted from Hanford, it said.
Scientists conducting the dose study have asked for more federal money to pursue those issues, said Mary Lou Blazek of Salem, Ore., the chairwoman of the panel directing the study.
“We are aware of the Pigford report, but we haven’t seen it yet,” Blazek said.
The federal government admitted in 1990 that the Hanford radiation releases were large enough to cause health damage.
Less than a month later, the first lawsuits were filed against the contractors who ran Hanford for the government since 1943.
Since then, thousands more have filed suit, contending their health was damaged by the chronic radiation releases from 1944 to the ‘60s.
Defendants in the lawsuit include General Electric Co., Atlantic Richfield Hanford Co., Rockwell Hanford Co., United Nuclear and Du Pont.
As a result of a government agreement to pay the legal bills of its nuclear contractors, the Hanford case already has cost taxpayers at least $29.6 million to defend.
Judge McDonald dismissed Westinghouse Hanford Co. from the case last month, in part because of Pigford’s report.
“Pigford concluded that since 1973, there have been no releases from Hanford that could have harmed anybody,” said Bob Dutton, Westinghouse corporate counsel.
Westinghouse has been Hanford’s major site contractor since 1987.