A people’s truth via Aeon

The vast Hanford nuclear site was supposedly safe for its neighbours. Now they are fighting the experts for their story to be told

Kate Brown 03 December 2012
Tom Bailie grew up on a dryland farm in Mesa, Washington, just downwind from the massive Hanford plant founded in 1943 to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project. Bailie often served as an informal spokesman for the ‘downwinders’, the people who believed they were poisoned by fission products that flowed from the plant on air currents, along underground aquifers, and down the Columbia River on the dry plains of eastern Washington. Bailie shows up in dozens of articles and almost every book about Hanford. Talking to him, it’s easy to see why. He has the gift of gab spiced with a knack for colorful sound bites. He also looks, dresses and drawls just like a farmer on the Western range should, which makes for good copy. Because it takes historians a long time to research a story, I got to know Bailie well. Over the years, we became friends.
In the decades after the Chernobyl disaster, state-funded scientists in the United States determined that landscapes polluted with radioactive isotopes from weapons production required $100 billion amelioration programmes. In these places, residents had been exposed to low doses of ionising radiation since the mid-1940s, longer than anywhere else in the world. Richland, Washington, was a model city re-built in 1943 for plutonium plant operators. Scientists claimed that the local testimonies of chronic illness and sick children were scientifically anecdotal; that, on average, rural inhabitants were no less healthy than other populations. Internationally, experts argued that people living near radioactive zones in the US, Ukraine and Russia were just fine. If they were sick, it was because they had ‘radiophobia’, or they drank too much, smoked and had poor diets.

In this light, recent reports of deformed barn swallows in the Chernobyl zone and mutant butterflies appearing a year after the meltdown of three reactors in Fukushima make for especially worrying copy. Butterflies and birds don’t smoke, drink, or suffer from radiophobia. For the past seven years, I have spent a great deal of time in the radiated traces of the world’s first plutonium plants — the Hanford factory in eastern Washington State and the Mayak plant in the southern Russian Urals. As countries from the Middle East to the Baltics gear up for a new generation of nuclear power reactors, it is worth taking another look at how scientists laid claim to the ‘truth’ to dismiss the testimony of local farmers such as Tom Bailie, and how farmers fought back to cast doubt on the experts.

As Bailie tells it, he didn’t always harbour suspicions of government agents in unmarked cars. He said he was once a freedom-loving, take-it-or-leave-it American patriot. He tried to enlist during the Vietnam War, and was rejected because of birth defects. Even so, he spurned the hippies and peace movement, and was proud of living alongside the plutonium plant in a community of like-minded people who knew the value of a strong defence. After the Chernobyl disaster, however, de-classified documents showed that the Hanford plant’s routine dumping of radioactive waste exceeded the Chernobyl blast several times over. This news gradually eroded Bailie’s political certainties.

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