The suffering of Hanford Downwinders exposed to airborne radiation must not be omitted from the stories told in the new Manhattan Project Historic National Park.
Admittedly, the stories of cancers, other serious disease, and death in those of us who were children in the path of Hanford’s radiation aren’t part of the picture of scientific triumph and national pride those in the Tri-Cities may wish to portray in the new park. Yet we are part of the truth of the human toll of the Manhattan Project, and of Cold War nuclear weapons production and testing.
The mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki wrote to the National Park Service arguing that the exhibits within the new park must reveal the inhumanity of nuclear weapons, and the fact that the bombings have continued to cause physical and psychological suffering to the survivors due to the aftereffects of radiation.
The production of those weapons at Hanford also created victims downwind. The 1945 Trinity test site at Alamagordo, New Mexico, where the first nuclear explosion occurred, also caused illnesses, and residents of the area around the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, site were exposed to radiation, too. These are the three sites of the Manhattan Project park.
The new park should expand understanding of the specific harms to Japanese survivors (Hibakusha), American Downwinders and indigenous communities. Future generations can learn important lessons about environmental justice from exhibits at the proposed park.
We applaud the use of oral history to bring personal stories to the Manhattan Project park. However, we note that the “Voices of the Manhattan Project” of the Atomic Heritage Foundation features accounts almost exclusively from Manhattan Project workers and scientists. While there are a few powerful indigenous voices represented, there seem to be no health-impacted members of the Downwind community included.
As stated in the Atomic Energy Commission booklet “Atomic Tests in Nevada (1955),” “You people who live near Nevada Test Site are in a very real sense active participants in the Nation’s atomic test program.” That acknowledgment made during the period of atmospheric weapon testing was also true for those downwind from many Manhattan Project sites, and remains as true today as it was then. This “active participation” in nuclear weapon development and testing must be honored and included in the cultural memory our nation is building around this important history.
As the planning of park exhibits progresses, it is imperative to represent the full human toll of the Manhattan Project and the nuclear complex it created. The medical, cultural and political implications of radiation exposure are among the most important aspects of Manhattan Project history for the public to better understand. It is not only an important part of our past and present, it will also almost certainly be part of our future, whether as a result of nuclear proliferation, accident, legacy waste or, perhaps, even war.
Trisha T. Pritikin was born and raised in Richland. Her father was a nuclear engineer at Hanford. He and Trisha’s mother died of cancers associated with radiation exposure. Pritikin suffers from thyroid and parathyroid disease and other health issues also associated with radiation. She has volunteered as an advocate for Hanford Downwinders over the past 30 years.