As a 5-year-old, Steve Stanton never gave a thought to a place called the Hanford Engineer Works. The towheaded boy was too busy roaming...
HANFORD — As a 5-year-old, Steve Stanton never gave a thought to a place called the Hanford Engineer Works.
The towheaded boy was too busy roaming his Walla Walla neighborhood, building forts with his younger brother and picking raspberries from his grandfather’s garden.
But on a day in early December 1949, scientists more than 60 miles away at Hanford embarked on a secret experiment that would touch the lives of Stanton and thousands of others in eastern Washington and Oregon.
At a massive concrete factory in the desert north of Richland, built to extract plutonium for the core of nuclear bombs, the scientists began pouring caustic chemicals onto a ton of radioactive uranium fresh from a nuclear reactor.
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As the scientists expected, the reaction spewed radiation through a 200-foot smokestack and into the Eastern Washington sky. The winds carried it as much as 200 miles away.
Beginning today, the legacy of that experiment at the World War II-era nuclear-weapons factory and countless other radiation leaks from Hanford will go on trial in a Spokane courtroom.
Stanton is one of six plaintiffs, the first of roughly 2,300 Hanford “downwinders” suing the companies that built and ran Hanford. They suffer from cancer and other illnesses, some fatal, that they or their families say stem from radiation showered on them without their knowledge.
The companies insist there is no evidence — despite years of studies — that Hanford radiation sickened, injured or killed its neighbors.
While the trial starting today will center on scientific disputes over whether the radiation sickened people, it also represents a trial of an ambitious program by the federal government and big corporations that propelled the U.S. into the nuclear age and left a trail of pollution and secrecy.
“We’re really dealing with closing a chapter on one of the darker stages of our history,” said Robert Alvarez, a senior policy adviser to the Clinton administration’s secretary of energy and a longtime critic of the nuclear-weapons industry. “There were a lot of people being put at risk without their knowledge or their consent,” he said.
Stanton was born at Walla Walla General Hospital on Nov. 6, 1944, two months before the first uranium was dissolved at Hanford to extract tiny amounts of plutonium for the core of a nuclear bomb. The first big puff of radiation into the sky followed almost immediately.
At that point, almost nobody knew what was happening in the desolate, windswept desert near a bend in the Columbia River. Not most of the roughly 50,000 people who worked there, nor the people who lived nearby in farm towns like Pasco and Kennewick.
They didn’t know that in those vast gray buildings, scientists were feverishly working to collect plutonium.
It was the height of World War II, and the radioactive metal was a key ingredient for the Manhattan Project, the top-secret government effort to build an atomic bomb.
Plutonium from Hanford sat at the center of the world’s first nuclear bomb, exploded in a test in New Mexico. Hanford also produced the plutonium in the bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.
It wasn’t until August 1945, after the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, that the true purpose of the Hanford factories was unveiled. “It’s Atomic Bombs” read the headline of the local Richland Villager newspaper.
From the time it became widely known, government and industry officials from DuPont, and then General Electric issued statements that the factories posed no health threat. In August 1945, a memo sought to debunk rumors, declaring the site safe for workers and nearby residents.
“We do not live in a ‘City of Pluto,’ as certain elements of the press describe our village. Pluto is safely confined behind walls or barriers in the Plant. What little of him as does escape is not going to relegate anyone to purgatory,” it stated.
The statement was among the first of a steady stream of assurances spanning decades.
But within Hanford, radiation concerns surfaced before construction finished. As early as December 1943, an internal memo warned that winter weather could trap radioactive gases close to the ground, particularly radioactive iodine, I-131, as they come out of the factories’ stacks.
“Unless some method of handling the active iodine other than its passage from the stack as a vapor is developed, it appears that this will present a grave health problem,” the memo stated.
The warning proved prescient.
Up in the air
The processing factories initially had no filters, so whatever went into the factory’s exhaust system wound up in the air.
In spring 1945, I-131 levels near the stacks rose to 100 times the “permanently tolerable value,” according to a DuPont record. By December of that year, I-131 was found on vegetation in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick as much as 32 times the safety level set soon after, in January 1946.
By 1951, an estimated 730,000 curies of I-131 had been released into the atmosphere. For comparison, the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant in the former Soviet Union released an estimated 50 million curies of I-131 over 10 days.
Hanford scientists worried that radioactive iodine from the factories could damage people’s thyroids, which help regulate metabolism.
Hanford officials eventually dealt with the problem by installing filters and waiting longer to dissolve the uranium. The iodine, with a half life of eight days, became less of a problem as the uranium cooled.
The exception was the December 1949 experiment, known as the “Green Run.” It was done in conjunction with the Air Force, for what appears to be a test of radiation-monitoring equipment.
After the test, radiation above the safety threshold established at the time was found in a region extending from The Dalles in Oregon to Spokane, and from Yakima to the Blue Mountains, according to a memo kept secret until 1986.
Other radiation problems continued to reach beyond Hanford’s borders.
Particles and flakes of radioactive material continued to float periodically out of the factories to nearby towns. Columbia River water was used to cool the nuclear reactors, then flushed back into the river still bearing some radiation.
By 1971, when the last of those reactors closed, more than 100 million curies of radiation are thought to have flowed into the Columbia River. Elevated radiation showed up as far away as in oysters in the Pacific Ocean near the river’s mouth.
Steve Stanton knew nothing of this. He was a healthy boy, according to him and his mother. He ate vegetables pulled from the garden. His mother remembers him drinking milk delivered from nearby Young’s Dairy. Milk is considered a prime conduit for I-131, when it falls on vegetation eaten by cows.
In 1952 his family moved to Seattle, where his father worked at a dry-cleaning business near the foot of Queen Anne Hill.
Stanton was a quiet kid with a penchant for numbers. He graduated from the University of Washington in civil engineering. He returned to Walla Walla in 1973, bought a house a few miles from where he grew up and settled into a career with the county engineering department.
He raised three girls and quietly moved toward middle age. What he knew about Hanford came from the newspaper.
Then, in the spring of 1996, he felt like he was coming down with a cold or a flu. That’s when the doctor found the lump below his Adam’s apple. A few weeks later, his thyroid was cut out and declared cancerous.
“Cancer,” Stanton recalled. “That’s kind of a nasty word.”
Surfing the Internet to learn about treatments for thyroid cancer, Stanton came across Web sites for “downwinders” — people who lived near nuclear-weapons factories or testing grounds and believed they were sickened by radiation.
Convinced that his thyroid cancer came from Hanford, he joined the downwinder lawsuit.
By then, the lawsuit was well on its way.
In 1986, the Department of Energy and Hanford, under public pressure, released thousands of pages of documents that spelled out how much radiation had come from the factories.
The revelations set off a huge controversy. In 1991, the first downwinder lawsuit was filed.
Since then, the lawsuits, seeking various amounts of money for damages, have been killed by one federal judge’s ruling, only to be revived by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They are now before a second judge, William Nielsen.
The federal government has spent tens of millions of dollars to defend the companies, because it promised to indemnify them when they took the contract to run Hanford. It will also have to pay if the plaintiffs win the case.
The trial starting today represent six “bellwether” plaintiffs — people who will act as test cases. The outcome could influence the fate of the other cases.
The massive legal case comes down to this deceptively simple question: Did Hanford make people sick?
The defendant companies, General Electric and DuPont, argue there is no solid evidence it did.
Despite the private concerns of early Hanford officials, no study has turned up unusual patterns of disease in nearby residents that can be traced to Hanford radiation.
“The bottom line is the plaintiffs do not have any epidemiology to establish that I-131 caused any of these conditions,” said Kevin Van Wart, the lead defense attorney. “You have to have some science to say there is reason to believe that more likely than not Hanford caused this thyroid disease.”
The Hanford Thyroid Disease Study, the major study of downwinders by Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, concluded in 2002 that there was no evidence of higher thyroid disease or thyroid-cancer rates among people exposed to higher doses of radiation.
It cautioned, however, it couldn’t rule out that a particular person got a disease from the radiation.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys, meanwhile, have attacked the Hanford thyroid study as flawed, and say defendants haven’t offered another scenario for the diseases.
“They have not identified anything that would be an alternative cause at all, let alone anything that’s more likely to be a cause [than Hanford radiation],” said attorney David Breskin.
Scientists working for the plaintiffs argue the thyroid study overstates the certainty of its conclusions. It fails to acknowledge possible statistical errors that could throw off the results, and doesn’t account for all of the radiation that downwinders might have encountered, they claim.
They also question the study’s independence from influence by the defendants. A recent court filing notes that several people involved in creating the computer models that estimated Hanford radiation exposures also worked for the U.S. Department of Justice or the firm defending companies in the downwinder lawsuit.
Hanford historian Michele Gerber, author of “On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site,” said she hopes the trial can provide some answers to the question of whether Hanford harmed any downwinders.
“I don’t think you can move forward until you have a democratically arrived at answer,” said Gerber, who works for Fluor Hanford, the main company running the facility.
But it may never close the chasm separating people over Hanford’s history.
Judith Jurji’s father moved the family to Pasco in 1949 to work as a Hanford pipe fitter. She was 4. She left in 1964 to go to college.
Tired and forgetful
For years, she wrestled with chronic fatigue and forgetfulness. After the 1986 revelations about Hanford, she had her thyroid checked and learned it wasn’t functioning properly.
She became a leader in the downwinder movement. Both she and her sister are plaintiffs in the case, though they aren’t one of the six bellwether cases.
She still goes back to visit her relatives who live near Hanford.
“I don’t like to, but I do,” Jurji said. “I think my sister and I feel the same way. We just felt like there was so many lies. We were really deceived about the safety of the place.”
In Richland, the overriding feeling is one of pride in the role Hanford played in arming the country. The local high-school team is called the Bombers, its insignia a mushroom cloud. The Atomic Ale Brewpub and Eatery serves Plutonium Porter and Half-Life Hefeweizen.
The local history museum features several rooms dedicated to Hanford.
But there’s no mention of the Green Run, or the downwinders, or the radiation that reached towns surrounding Hanford.
Roger Rohrbacher feels no anxiety about Hanford’s history. He was a 23-year-old scientist when he arrived in Richland in 1944 to work on a mysterious project. He expressed pride at the role it played in winning the war.
Now 85 and a docent at the museum, he shows no doubts about what happened at the plant.
“As far as the safety and the radiation, I don’t remember any problems,” he said.
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org