Among the items in the $600 billion National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress last year is a measure establishing the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which encompasses three sites central to the development of nuclear weapons.
Former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a vocal opponent of commemorating the Manhattan Project, had blocked passage of the park proposal until he lost his 2012 re-election bid. Responding to the park’s supporters, who claim the monument is a celebration of technological achievement and not the bombing of civilians, Kucinich replied: “The technology which created the bomb cannot be separated from the horror which the bomb created.”
At the end of his second term, President Bill Clinton used his executive power to establish the 300-square-mile Hanford Reach National Monument in the former security zone across the Columbia River. The 50-mile stretch had been spared development as the rest of the region grew to stop spies from observing the plant in operation.
Today the Reach provides a stark, unrestricted vantage point of the Columbia River overlooking the reactors where plutonium was produced for 40 years.
Hanford was a small farm town until 1943, when the United States Army forced local farmers and indigenous people to sell their land for a secret project. A year later, the first structure, called the B-Reactor, was up and running, with a workforce of 50,000 dedicated to manufacturing a single product: plutonium.
In 1986, a catastrophic explosion at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant spread radiation around the globe and raised the specter of an accident at Hanford. As questions about Hanford mounted, citizen groups formed and turned up pressure on the U.S. government to release classified information about the site.
The Department of Energy eventually turned over 19,000 declassified documents that informed an exposé penned by newspaper reporter Karen Dorn Steele. Her reports inspired a group of activists who became known as the “downwinders”–mostly descendants of the technicians and scientists who had worked at Hanford. Some downwinders, such as Trisha Pritikin, wear the “Hanford necklace,” a thin scar across the throat marking where their thyroid glands were surgically removed.
Pritikin told WhoWhatWhy that she first made a connection between thyroid cancer and the Hanford plant in 1986, when she read about the Green Run, a secret experiment in the late 1940s that purposely released radioactive iodine into the environment. The exact purpose of the iodine release remains a mystery, although historians believe the experiment was designed to test special equipment to spy on Soviet nuclear tests.
The results were successful, but with a poisonous side effect. This highly radioactive man-made element has a propensity for “fission” –splitting apart in a reaction that releases vast amounts of energy. In the course of four decades of plutonium production billions of gallons of radioactive waste were created at Hanford and discharged into the environment.
Until 1971, Hanford dumped the radioactive water used for cooling its reactors directly into the Columbia River. That pushed radiation 200 miles down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean where the contamination washed up on the beaches of Oregon, according to a 1994 report by a government contractor, the Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
The Hanford Health Information Network, a new public organization, worked with the Washington State Department of Health to gather radiation exposure data and publicized the health effects to residents who had lived in the shadow of the plant. After the groups pressured the DOE, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) eventually launched a project to estimate how much of a radiation dose the public received.
The CDC report was a blow to the downwinders’ case, stating: “The risks of thyroid disease in study participants were about the same…” no matter what dose of radiation they received between 1944-57, the peak years of Hanford operations. The CDC report didn’t stop hundreds of cases from being filed against the government.
In 2012, the government offered Hanford downwinders a puny sum of about $6,700 each to drop their claims—compensation that would have to be funded by taxpayers. That’s because of an agreement reached in the early days of the Manhattan Project, which indemnified government contractors involved in nuclear research and weapons production.
Currently so-called bellwether cases are winding through the courts; Pritikin’s claims are being argued in initial tests of each side’s legal arguments before hundreds more cases are brought to trial.
On the front lines of that waste are Native American people living near the Hanford site. An independent study published in 2009 by ethnographer Deward E. Walker found that one such group, the Yakama people had an estimated 1-in-50 chance of developing cancer.
Russell Jim, 78, a Yakama elder and cancer survivor, said the most important issue for the tribe is “protection and respect for treaty-reserved rights,” which he asserts are violated by underground plumes of radioactive waste and toxic chemicals flowing toward the Columbia. Some plumes are just 400 yards from the river, threatening the salmon runs that sustain Yakama culture.
Steve Buckingham, a 92-year old retired atomic worker with an infectious laugh, described how plutonium was recovered with minimal regard for safety. “It was wartime,” said Buckingham, who admits that “radioactive iodine was released in large brown clouds of gas as buckets of irradiated uranium were dissolved in a pool of acid.”
Passing from one cell to the next, two tons of irradiated uranium would be reduced to a nine-gallon bucket of plutonium nitrate —the rest left behind as waste.
The Hanford nuclear site is expected to draw 100,000 curious visitors each year, according to Hanford boosters. By glorifying this grim moment in our past, what face is the United States showing the world—and ourselves?