Harm and Hard Evidence

A look inside Trisha Pritikin’s “The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices From the Fight for Atomic Justice.”

I grew up in Seattle, WA, just on the other side of the Cascade Mountains from the Hanford Nuclear Site, blissfully unaware that this tragic and historic site was just a few hours away. Established in 1943, Hanford was the first plutonium production plant in the US, and is now the most contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere. This is the site where plutonium was made for the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, killing nearly a hundred thousand people. Hanford also produced the majority of the plutonium used in the 1054 nuclear tests conducted by the US government. All the while, it was releasing radiation into the air and dumping radioactive waste into the land and water, endangering those downwind and downriver.

“The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices From the Fight for Atomic Justice” by Trisha Pritikin does a great service in illuminating the history and the stories of both Hanford and the Nevada Test Site, where the US tested over one hundred nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Through historical records, personal stories, and the inner workings of key legal battles, Pritikin systematically and powerfully presents the evidence of harm to downwinders. As a Hanford downwinder herself, lawyer, and lifelong advocate, Pritikin is perfectly poised to tell this story, and her writing adds great value to the field. Her legal expertise lends an intricate understanding of the legal proceedings that have shaped the fight for justice for nuclear victims. Her shrewd research provides a clear indictment of the US government’s neglect and mismanagement of its nuclear sites, which has led to deadly radiation exposure of civilians. But just as important, her inclusion of the lives of fellow downwinders, told in their own words, imbues the book with a compassion and heart that is too often missing from research on nuclear sites. These raw, unfiltered stories ground the book in humanity and compel the reader through the hard facts, making for a more whole understanding of this history.

Each of the 24 stories is from a plaintiff in the In Re Hanford legal case, a harrowing 24-year battle in which thousands of downwinders filed personal injury suits against Hanford contractors. After decades of being doubted and suppressed, Pritikin finally provides a platform for downwinders to share their full lived realities and experiences of often debilitating illnesses that they link to Hanford. Their stories are painful, often devastating, yet also show the resilience and strength of this community. These individuals have fought not just to survive, but to live full lives and fight for a better world. Their hope is that the world will hear their stories, understand the truth about the history of nuclear weapons, and learn from it.

Some stories shocked me to my core, forcing me to confront a kind of evil in the world and in our government that we usually prefer to turn away from. In one, Rance Jones starts by sharing that he didn’t know he was a twin until he was 35 years old. Shortly before he was born, all records of his twin disappeared, and his mother, heavily sedated at the time of birth, was given only one baby to take home without ever being offered an explanation. 35 years later, Rance discovered that his twin may have been taken from his family as part of Project Sunshine, a covert operation from 1944 through the 1970s, in which hospitals in the US and abroad supplied the US government with thousands of dead fetuses and babies without the consent of their families for radiation experiments.

35 years later, Rance discovered that his twin may have been taken from his family as part of Project Sunshine, a covert operation from 1944 through the 1970s, in which hospitals in the US and abroad supplied the US government with thousands of dead fetuses and babies without the consent of their families for radiation experiments.

Perhaps less shocking, but common to all of the stories and no less insidious, is the endless string of cancers and other severe illnesses suffered not just by the plaintiffs, but often by their whole families, whole communities. Rance himself has been diagnosed with no less than nine different cancers including thyroid cancer, as well as other illnesses including spinal meningitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypothyroidism, hypoparathyroidism, and osteoporosis. His parents both died of cancer. These endless illnesses take an immense toll: “For the downwinders, life often hinges upon the cataclysmic unknown — will my cancer return, what else will happen to me?” In any discussion of Hanford or the US nuclear weapons program, these personal stories are crucial to truly understanding the cost of nuclear weapons production.

The plaintiff’s stories are woven into a clear and detailed history of both In Re Hanford and Irene Allen v. United States, in which NTS downwinders filed personal injury suits against the US government. Placing these side by side adds a powerful dimension to the book, showing the scope of this issue and the ways in which legal and legislative efforts at these two sites have influenced each other. While the finer points of the legal battles were occasionally daunting to wade through, in general, I was impressed that “Hanford Plaintiffs” is accessible and easy to follow even for someone like myself with no legal background.

Ultimately, neither lawsuit brought the recognition or reparation that downwinders were seeking. The reader can’t walk away from this book without feeling that those outcomes are a grave injustice. Yet I was struck by two hard-won victories mixed in with the losses. First, In 1984, Federal Judge Bruce Jenkins made a monumental ruling in Irene Allen v. United States in favor of downwinders, concluding that, “the government had been negligent and that certain plaintiff’s cancers were more likely than not caused by exposure to nuclear fallout. This was the first time atomic testing had been determined by a federal court to have caused cancers, and the decision was hailed as a landmark ruling…” This victory was swiftly appealed by the US government, and a circuit ruled that the government could not be sued unless it consented to be, which of course, it didn’t.

This ruling cast a dark shadow over the Hanford downwinders own lawsuit, In Re Hanford, making their case more difficult. Even still, in a second major victory, a jury ruled in favor of two bellwether plaintiffs involved in In Re Hanford: “The jury verdict was a historic first. A jury had never before decided that a US nuclear bomb plant had injured civilians downwind.” But in the end, after the government spent $80 million (of taxpayer money) fighting the case, most cases were dismissed and only a few plaintiffs received extremely disappointing settlements.

It is painful to see the many ways in which the cards were stacked against downwinders in both of these cases. Pritikin demonstrates just how hard it is for those who have been harmed to stand up to the juggernaut that is the US government, which is determined not to be held accountable and has the resources to ensure it is not. Tom Bailie, another plaintiff, sums it up nicely: “I’m slowly finding out that Washington State’s downwinders are finding themselves in the same category as Nevada downwinders — where there’s no legal recourse and the US Department of Energy is above the law.”

Beyond the specifics of the legal battles, “Hanford Plaintiffs” also includes a detailed and disturbing history of the known radiation risks from Hanford and the NTS. Pritikin’s excellent historical research shines in these sections. She carefully unfolds the layers of history, revealing just how much the government knew about exposures and risks to downwinders even in the earliest days of both sites, and throughout their operation. The parallels between the two sites are jarring, making it clear that these were not isolated — this harm was common to nuclear sites across the country.

One of the most prominent themes that emerges is neglect: endless efforts from the US government to suppress both warnings of harm and hard evidence that harm was ongoing.

Just one of many examples throughout the book was the knowledge of the “milk-iodine pathway”: radioactive Iodine 131(I-131) was released in fallout from nuclear testing at the NTS and plutonium processing at Hanford, consumed by grazing cows and goats, and passed into the milk supply. This was a well-known phenomenon, and Manhattan Project scientists knew by 1943 that I-131 could cause thyroid destruction. In the 1940s and 50s, the US government and scientists were aware that unsafe levels of I-131 were being released from Hanford and the NTS and contaminating the milk supply: “In 1955 Hanford’s director of radiological science confirmed, without informing the public, that scientists had known since the first year of Hanford operations that permissible levels of I-131 in the Hanford region were too high and that ‘drinking of milk from cows on contaminated pastures’…was the problem.” Despite this, the government routinely chose not to take preventative measures to protect people’s health, notify populations of the possible hazard, confiscate contaminated milk supplies, or take samples of suspected contaminated milk.

Why? Because they worried that these measures to protect people’s health would cause concern among the general public and jeopardize ongoing nuclear weapons testing or production. After a nuclear test codenamed “Harry” in 1953, which generated more radioactive fallout than any other test at the NTS, “radiation monitors decided against taking milk samples in order to avoid arousing public concern.” When a report criticized this behavior in 1961, the AEC first tried to dismiss the report, then classified it, ensuring it didn’t see the light of day until 1978. This history reveals a pattern: again and again, the government decided that the health of its people was far less important than the ongoing production of nuclear weapons.

During Irene Allen v. United States, it also became abundantly clear that the US government never collected the necessary data around downwinder exposure, making it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to collect or reconstruct that data decades later. This practice has led to serious consequences for downwinders. Pritikin shows that efforts like the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project and Hanford Thyroid Disease study, which were used to attempt to determine radiation exposure and cancer risk for Hanford downwinders, were inherently uncertain and plagued with miscalculation and underestimates of exposure. This made their case in In Re Hanford exponentially harder to prove. This in turn points to a larger trend for nuclear victims: when they seek justice, this kind of uncertainty is used against them.

It is no wonder then, that a common thread throughout the personal testimonies is a sense of betrayal and neglect from their government. In her testimony, Brenda Weaver states, “…we thought the government was going to help those of us harmed by the US nuclear weapons production and testing program. Instead, it seems like they are just waiting for us all to die.”

It can be easy to forget the horrors of nuclear weapons in the day-to-day. “Hanford Plaintiffs” is a stark reminder that the very existence of these weapons should appall us, not just because they could kill millions of people in an instant, but for the human cost our government was willing to pay to obtain them. The human experimentation, the known exposure that was brushed aside and hidden from the public, the endless suffering of cancers and illness. These weapons represent the height of inhumanity, and we should not tolerate them.

The government’s unwavering and enthusiastic support of nuclear weapons is propped up by the belief that they keep us safe. This belief justifies the more than $6 trillion the US government is estimated to have spent on these weapons since 1945. But stories like those in “Hanford Plaintiffs” force us to ask: safe for who? Certainly not for Hanford downwinders, or any of the other tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who have died or been made gravely ill by the production, testing, and use of these weapons. A recent study puts the death toll from US nuclear testing alone between 340,000 to 460,000. The safety of nuclear weapons is a mirage, enabled only because these harms have been hidden. Books like “Hanford Plaintiffs” are essential because they pull back the curtain.

Lilly Adams is an outreach consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists in their Global Security Program and coordinates the Nuclear Voices project, which seeks to build connections with nuclear frontline communities and amplify issues of nuclear justice.