By Daniele Macluglia
Scholarly work on the public understanding of the Cold War nuclear industry has frequently focused on media coverage related to the secrecy of US nuclear sites. This method of analysis holds true particularly for the Hanford Site, a plutonium production complex located in Washington State that polluted a large portion of the Pacific Northwest with radioactive waste for more than four decades. During Hanford’s operational history—from 1943 to 1987—high-level radioactive waste produced at the site exposed thousands of people living and working in the area to the risk of cancer and caused extensive environmental damage, making Hanford the most contaminated place in the United States to this day. Although the US government always maintained a top-secret classification for Hanford’s activities and operations, an analysis of newspaper reports from that era reveals that the general public in the surrounding area developed some awareness of what was going on at the site.
Apprehensive about the Nazi expansion and, later, the Soviet Union’s military and nuclear weapon programs, the US government did not directly warn the public about the contamination, “which was measured but kept secret in classified documents, most declassified for the first time in 1986,” according to a 1988 report in the Bulletin. However, as historian J. Samuel Walker also discussed in his 2009 book The Road to Yucca Mountain, many stories circulated in public about accidents and waste issues at the site, and most US nuclear facilities at that time operated in an intermediate state between secrecy and publicity.
On a scale ranging from total secrecy to complete openness, the Hanford case is located somewhere between these two extremes, and specific “drivers of secrecy” have shaped the history of this nuclear facility. Among them are military, political, and economic agents that acted in self-interested ways, moving under the assumption that societal awareness would probably mean interference, fear, and protests. However, these drivers of secrecy did not prevent locals from sensing what was happening around them.