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Nagasaki bomb was the opening act of Hanford’s nuclear mission – and its toxic legacy

In this photo taken July 11, 2016, a sign warns of radioactive material stored underground on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. The U.S. Energy Department’s top official at Washington state’s severely contaminated nuclear reservation says future accidental nuclear radiation releases are likely because of aging site infrastructure and inadequate cleanup funding. Hundreds were evacuated May 9, 2017 when the roof of a 1950s rail tunnel storing a lethal mix of waste from plutonium production collapsed. Tests show no radiation was released. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) ORG XMIT: WATW306  (Ted S. Warren)
In this photo taken July 11, 2016, a sign warns of radioactive material stored underground on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Wash. The U.S. Energy Department’s top official at Washington state’s severely contaminated nuclear reservation says future accidental nuclear radiation releases are likely because of aging site infrastructure and inadequate cleanup funding. Hundreds were evacuated May 9, 2017 when the roof of a 1950s rail tunnel storing a lethal mix of waste from plutonium production collapsed. Tests show no radiation was released. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) ORG XMIT: WATW306 (Ted S. Warren)
By Karen Dorn Steele For The Spokesman-Review

The “Fat Man” bomb fueled by Hanford plutonium that leveled Nagasaki and ended World War II was only the opening salvo in Hanford’s lengthy and controversial nuclear mission.

As active hostilities ceased in 1945, a new “Cold War” between former allies began as the Soviet Union launched its own quest for nuclear weapons and the United States built up its lethal arsenal.

While a triumphalist headline in a Richland newspaper, “It’s Atomic Bombs,” revealed Hanford’s wartime mission in 1945, Hanford’s Cold War story wasn’t disclosed for decades.

The Spokesman-Review would play a major role in telling that story, challenging Hanford’s official narrative by prying loose from a reluctant federal government decades of records that showed Hanford operations in the 1950s and ’60s were dangerous, secretly exposing Hanford workers and offsite civilians to a series of accidents, chronic radiation releases and even a deliberate radiation experiment.

I began this reporting after the Reagan administration announced a new nuclear arms buildup to counter Soviet aggression, restarting a 1956 Hanford plutonium factory, PUREX (shorthand for plutonium-uranium extraction), in October 1983.

The restart generated controversy in the Pacific Northwest from opponents of a renewed nuclear weapons mission for Hanford. PUREX immediately ran into problems, releasing radiation that exceeded worker safety standards by 10 to 100 times.

In 1984, I got a phone call that would shape my journalism career. A nervous PUREX worker said she was risking her security clearance by calling me to warn of a potentially catastrophic explosion. This was two years before the tragic Chernobyl reactor explosion in Ukraine.

Following up on her tip, I obtained documents confirming that the FBI had recently conducted an audit of 40 kilograms of missing plutonium at PUREX – a sign either of theft or of major safety problems. When the story was published, Tri-Cities officials went on the offensive, accusing The Spokesman-Review of being anti-Hanford, even unpatriotic. But a month later, Hanford officials opened up PUREX for a first-ever press tour to answer questions about its operations.

Calls and letters from people worried about Hanford began to pour in, including from some of Hanford’s closest neighbors.

In early 1985, a gregarious farmer, Tom Bailie, invited me to Mesa, a small farming town directly across the Columbia River from Hanford. He said families who settled there in the 1950s had private worries about their nuclear neighbor. He introduced me to Leon and Juanita Andrewjeski, who’d been keeping a “death map” of cancers and early heart attacks in their community. Other farmers spoke of gruesome sheep deaths in the early 1960s, where hundreds of lambs were born mummified. They recalled men from Hanford in white protective suits taking soil samples while walking their fields with Geiger counters but were never told why they’d come or what they found.

Hanford’s top radiological safety officer, Don Elle, discounted their concerns when I questioned him. “The Energy Department hasn’t done offsite studies … we wouldn’t expect to see anything,” he said.

On July 28, 1985, I wrote the first story about the farmers. It began this way: “Farmer Tom Bailie stood amid shoulder-high corn on a bluff overlooking the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. He pointed down to a wide valley at Ringold, where farms descend to the Columbia River. As a dust storm swept a huge brown cloud across the nuclear reservation, Bailie remarked: ‘This is the funnel – and we’re the Hanford downwinders.’ “

That two-word description would stick. Exposed civilians would from that date on be described as Hanford downwinders.

Others, including the Hanford Education Action League of Spokane, newspapers in Seattle and Portland, and the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington D.C. would join in the quest for more information about Hanford. It was hard to obtain: many of Hanford’s environmental monitoring documents from the 1940s through the ’60s were still classified 40 years later.

Writ large, this was a battle for openness versus an old-guard weapons agency that had concluded years earlier that the public had “no need to know” the environmental and public health consequences of the arms race, and secretly followed a “never admit, never pay” policy towards exposed people at its nuclear test site in Nevada and its weapons production facilities.

Admiral James Watkins, Reagan’s energy secretary, described the government’s stance bluntly in a memo arguing for continued secrecy. He said disclosing information about nuclear mishaps would mean “the effective curtailment” of weapons production.

We used a powerful tool, the Freedom of Information Act, to force the release of the Hanford documents. After a long internal debate, the Energy Department agreed in March 1986 to an initial release of 19,000 pages. Thousands more pages would follow; Spokesman-Review attorneys would have to fight in court for some of the most sensitive.

In 1986, we crunched the data from the new information on Hanford’s early period of operations, 1944 to 1957. The reports stunned us, revealing cumulative releases of nearly 1 million curies of radioactive iodine from Hanford plant stacks. By contrast, when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania ejected 15 to 24 curies in its 1979 accident, the rural area around the plant was evacuated and milk from nearby dairies was impounded because Iodine 131 is taken up in the human thyroid through milk. The Hanford emissions ultimately proved to be the largest from any U.S. weapons production facility.

Working with the documents, I was the first to report on a secret military experiment called the “Green Run” that shocked our readers.

On Dec. 2, 1949, the U.S. Air Force ordered a Hanford plutonium plant to deactivate the filters that kept radioactive iodine out of the air, allowing a huge radiation cloud to blanket the region, from The Dalles to Spokane.

The experiment was ordered because the government assumed the Soviets under Joseph Stalin were using “green,” or uncooled, fuel to produce plutonium in the late 1940s. The Air Force tested that assumption by creating a radiation cloud at Hanford similar to what they thought they’d find by monitoring in the Soviet Union, tracking the cloud over Eastern Oregon and Washington to calibrate their detection instruments. The experiment was conducted despite sleet and rain that resulted in large radiation depositions in Walla Walla and other small towns.

My story prompted public outrage and a classified briefing for the Northwest congressional delegation. Spokane’s congressman, Tom Foley, told me he insisted at that briefing on release of additional information about the Green Run.

These dramatic Hanford stories were followed by the massive Chernobyl explosion on April 25, 1986, that contaminated Eastern Europe, Sweden and Ukraine, seizing the world’s attention.

Hanford’s N Reactor, a unique dual-purpose producer of plutonium for weapons and electricity for the Pacific Northwest power grid with a design similar to the Chernobyl reactor, was shut down shortly after the Ukraine accident and never reopened. Hanford’s mission swiftly changed to nuclear cleanup.

In 1990, five years after my first stories on Tom Bailie and his neighbors, the federal government finally admitted it had put the health of the downwinders at risk and pledged followup studies. Maps produced for those studies show that Tom Bailie and his neighbors received some of the highest estimated radiation doses in the region.

As a consequence, thousands of exposed people sued Hanford’s Cold War contractors. The federal litigation centered in Spokane lasted 25 years, ending in 2015 with modest, undisclosed settlements for some litigants.

One important factor in the trial’s unusual length: the defendant contractors were indemnified by the federal government for their role in plutonium production. U.S. taxpayers paid for the contractors’ approximately $100 million in legal bills. Although the case set legal precedent with two “bellwether” jury verdicts for Hanford downwinders with thyroid cancer, there was no government apology.

From our 21st century vantage point, what lessons have been learned from Hanford’s history? Here are a few:

• Our nation is capable of unprecedented technological feats, but in the case of nuclear weapons, they are weighted with profound moral complexities.

• Unchecked power in a mission-driven bureaucracy can lead to hubris, coverups and harm to the uninformed public.

• In a democracy, outside oversight is a check on power. The nuclear weapons agencies, for decades, worked with a largely compliant Congress to block independent oversight.

• U.S. taxpayers continue to pay billions of dollars for the nuclear weapons complex and its legacy of damage to the environment and public health.

Karen Dorn Steele was an environmental and investigative reporter from 1982 to 2009. She and former S-R reporter Jim Lynch won the George Polk Award for their Hanford reporting in 1994. Dorn Steele recently collaborated on a new book with downwinder Trisha Pritikin, “The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices From the Fight for Atomic Justice,” published in March 2020.

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