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Growing up near Othello in the 1960s, we developed a macabre pride over being so near an important target for Soviet missiles. We knew that something vast and threatening was happening just over the hill from our home—it was only eleven miles from our house to the nearest of Hanford’s nuclear plants. But we didn’t live with fear. Like Richland High School, whose football team was called The Bombers, and whose helmets sported a mushroom cloud, we took pride in having the world’s largest plutonium factory in our back yard. Truth to be told, we were even a bit jealous of the fact that most of the workers at Hanford lived in places like the Tri Cities and Sunnyside. On the other hand, rumor on the playground at Lutacaga Elementary School was that, if the Russians took out McChord Airforce Base, Othello’s radar station would be in command of the entire west coast.
What we didn’t realize was that the people who ran Hanford seemed totally uninterested in keeping their neighbors safe. They were involved in facing off the Soviet threat by building a secure nuclear arsenal, a task that seemed way more important than, say, installing filters on factory stacks (which didn’t happen until 1948) or keeping those filters functioning properly. What I have to say in this article is neither popular nor likely to change any minds, and that’s not my intent. I simply want to contribute my personal perspective to the conversation.
In the rush to produce plutonium for an atomic bomb, the danger of atmospheric releases was far from a top priority. The greatest release of iodine-131 occurred in 1945, as a routine byproduct of the separation of plutonium and uranium.
In the 1980s it was revealed that many of Hanford’s releases were actually intentional. Whether they meant to use their neighbors as guinea pigs, or whether the people living around Hanford were only incidental victims, Hanford’s managers intentionally exposed the people of the region to these releases. It was not the first example of how Eastern Washington was viewed as a dumping ground by the governments, as this newsreel about the disposal of surplus sodium by the government in Lake Lenore demonstrates.
It’s always dangerous to bring these releases into the realm of personal experience. There are too many variables to establish cause and effect, and there are too many interested parties who are willing to debate the issues, even to distort the numbers.
But people who lived near Hanford during the period of high releases can’t help but wonder how their own health and the health of loved ones might have been effected. Would my oldest sister have been born with a hole in her heart if the Air Force hadn’t decided to release 8,000 curies of iodine into the atmosphere from Hanford in one day shortly before my mother became pregnant with her?D
The headaches I suffered as a seven-year-old, so severe that I could only get relief by falling asleep facedown on a hardwood floor, were they connected to Hanford releases? By 1963, there were nine functioning nuclear plants plus numerous support facilities and processing plants at Hanford, many directly upwind from our farm. We ate fresh fruits, berries and vegetables from our garden and drank only milk produced on our farm (or that of a neighbor). It was also during that time that I experienced stabbing pain in my knees, elbows and hip joints. The doctor concluded that I had iron poor blood, and he prescribed huge red iron supplements that I took for months. The condition passed, but whether or not those horse pills were responsible cannot really be confirmed.
During the 1990s I watched with intense interest as the Downwinders movement seemed to be making progress toward getting the government to act responsibly about Hanford activities. By the turn of the millenium it seemed like something might happen. When push came to shove, though, we ended up with a pile of reports confirming mismanagement and intentional violations of environmental standards, but with refusal to connect those events with the illnesses and deaths of people who lived downwind.
A persistent memory of mine: I sit on the floor in our living room. Heavy drapes cover the window on the westward side of the house, but a strong beam of sunlight bursts through a tiny gap in the drapes. Tiny motes of dust drift through the sunlight. Brilliant as diamonds, they glitter for a moment, then disappear in the gloom beyond the sunbeam. Where have they gone? Where did they come from? What else drifts in the wind?