A $27 million government study to estimate radiation doses received by the public from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s weapons factories is being called into question by other scientific organizations and will be a point of controversy in trials of Hanford “downwinders” next year.
The Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction study was touted as scientifically sound when it was launched in 1988. But subsequent testing of the computer model used by Battelle’s Pacific Northwest Laboratory to develop the study showed that it consistently underpredicted emissions against actual measurements from Hanford radiation incidents, a lawyer for the downwinders told a federal judge in Spokane this week.
What’s more, the computer model assumed all of Eastern Washington was flat, and its grid system for tracking radiation deposition over 75,000 square miles was unable to detect hot spots in areas less than 36 square miles – missing radiation deposits in a lot of small towns and along the narrow Columbia River drainage, said the lawyer, Tom Foulds, of Seattle.
Foulds’ comments came during a status hearing Wednesday before U.S. District Court Judge William Nielsen, part of an ongoing federal trial brought by people exposed to radioactive iodine-131 released from Hanford during the 1940s and ’50s in Eastern Washington, northern Oregon and Idaho.
Their lawsuit, filed in 1990, has become one of the longest-running civil trials in Eastern Washington. Of the original 2,300 plaintiffs, approximately 1,358 will remain after a settlement of 125 hypothyroid cases announced this week.
The Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction study’s reliability has been criticized by several high-level scientific panels, including the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the study’s own advisory panel.
Citing internal Department of Energy documents, The Spokesman-Review reported in 2005 that the study was set up at least in part to defend the government against lawsuits by downwinders.
Lawyers representing the downwinders were barred by the case’s previous judge, the late U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald, of Yakima, from pursuing any discovery about the study in a “hands off” order that allowed the scientists to complete their work in 1994 without interruption.
This week, lawyers for the downwinders made a direct assault on the study. It was a new tack for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, who in 2005 had agreed with the defendants to use the study’s conclusions in six “bellwether” trials.
In a hearing Wednesday, Nielsen, the current judge, said the study won’t be introduced in 2012 trials for additional people who claim their thyroid cancers and other diseases were caused by Hanford.
“Based on what the court said today, the use of HEDR is virtually dead,” said plaintiff’s attorney Richard Eymann, of Spokane.
Kevin Van Wart, of Chicago, lead attorney for the defendant contractors who operated Hanford, disagreed with that interpretation, saying the defense can still introduce information from the study through its expert witnesses. Nielsen denied a motion by Foulds to ban any mention of the study as “misleading evidence” during the trial, but said the plaintiffs’ attorneys can challenge the study during cross-examination of defense experts.
The plaintiffs have hired their own scientific experts who say many of their clients’ estimated radiation doses are far higher than the defense estimates.
At stake in the dispute is the ability of sick plaintiffs to establish that their illnesses are “more likely than not” caused by Hanford emissions, he noted.
The computer model used in the study failed in scientific trials conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency after the 1986 Chernobyl accident. It “consistently underpredicted” the average concentrations of cesium in milk as compared with actual measurements downwind of the Chernobyl plant, Foulds said.
Likewise, it underpredicted emissions from several incidents for which actual measurements exist including:
• The Green Run, a secret 1949 military experiment that released radiation into the air that spread to Spokane and North Idaho with no public warning.
• A 1946 plutonium reprocessing plant accident that deposited radiation on sagebrush near Hanford. The model underpredicted the actual deposits by 6.3 times.
• A series of 1963 emissions from the PUREX plutonium processing plant tracked and measured by Hanford monitors. The model underestimated the radiation emissions by four to 11 times on the Wahluke Slope near the small Eastern Washington farm towns of Mesa and Eltopia.
Battelle, in response to criticism of the study, said it didn’t have time to fix the model by HEDR’s 1994 publication date, and the Energy Department didn’t allocate additional funds to fix it, Foulds noted.
Still unresolved in the long-running case: the claims of more than 400 plaintiffs with non-cancer illnesses who lived near the Columbia River and claim exposure to a variety of radioactive elements from Hanford.
Meanwhile, the defense has made settlement offers to all the 234 thyroid cancer plaintiffs and has agreed to settle 125 cases of people with hypothyroid disease represented by an Oregon attorney.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.