Aired Aug 7, 2020
WOMAN: When doctors don't know what's going on, they call it idiopathic. It means cause unknown. That's what I began to call my medical mystery tour.
GORDON KATIC: I’m Gordon Katic, and this is Cited. Last Week:
Archival movie: The 400-thousand acre government reservation of the Hanford Atomic Energy Plant was created.
Man: Today we are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Manhattan Project
Archival Newsreel: Here at Nagasaki the explosion was concentrated on an area of one-square mile. And even more complete destruction is said to have resulted
Tom Bailie: We were basically guinea pigs for the atomic age. We’re just the surviving Guinea pigs
Karen Dorn Steele: He said, ‘Oh yeah, back in the ‘60s I saw confidential memos about how you shouldn’t eat whitefish from the Columbia River because they’d been eating radioactive moss out of the effluent of one of the reactors
Tom Bailie: This lady had nine miscarriages. Husband and wife died of cancer.
Karen Dorn Steele: They said, ‘we’ve been keeping a death map’
Tom Bailie: July, 1985. That’s the date I started asking questions
Casey Ruud: It could either have a catastrophic accident. It could have a criticality where it could kill everyone in the plant. Or it could have an explosion that could result in a 700-mile long cloud
Karen Dorn Steele: The U.S. military ordered a Hanford plant to deactivate the filters that kept radioactive iodine out of the air, allowing a huge radiation cloud to blanket our region.
Casey Ruud. It was out of control. Beyond, even when we looked at it three months before. Plutonium was stored in drums in the hallway.
Gordon: Even with your siblings having cancers, your mother would say, ‘Forget about it’?
Tom Bailie: ‘It’s history’, she said.
If you haven't listened to that episode, stop now. Go back, listen to part one! This will make a lot more sense if you do.
Gordon: It’s October 9th, 1986.Casey Ruud is in Washington, D.C., 2600 miles from home.
Back in Washington State his name is splashed across the front page of yesterday’s Seattle Times. He’s a nuclear safety auditor turned whistleblower, and he just publicly called out the Hanford nuclear site.
CASEY: In a way, I felt like I was called to do this. And not I'm not a religious person, so it wasn't based on anything like that. It was just my whole life had led to that place.
In hindsight, at my age today, I don't had I never done anything like that. I don't know that I would have that to do that. But I was young enough and full of enough vim and vigour, to say, ‘this is the right thing to do, and I have to do it.’
This morning, he’s going to Capitol Hill to testify behind closed doors. He has all of his safety audits with him. Reams of paperwork showing how unsafe some of the Hanford plants are: missing plutonium, illegal toxic dumping, broken alarms, ignored safety protocols. And on top of all that-- memos that prove that the contractors running Hanford ignored his warnings.
It’s early in the morning, and Casey is just returning from his run. He’s calming his nerves. Suddenly, the hotel phone rings. It’s the Seattle Times journalist that Casey’s been working with-
CASEY: The article just came out it's a headline story, and they just shut all the plants down.
Before Casey gets the chance to testify: The Department of Energy closes down Hanford. Casey going public –--- it worked!
Well, sort of. Hanford management that claims this has nothing to do with Casey’s audits. Instead, this is just a temporary shut down to fix a single safety issue.
But for Casey– temporary isn’t good enough. He doesn’t trust the contractors to actually fix any of the issues at the plant -- he’d heard this line before. So he shows up to Capitol Hill, safety audits in hand.
And, behind closed doors, Congress asks him about the security of the plutonium made at Hanford.
CASEY: you know, if you, if you can show me your secret clearance, I could tell you about how I could steal a plutonium button out of the plant and sell it to Saddam Hussein. And they were like, ‘Well, that's not possible’. I said, ‘Oh, yeah, if you got a minute, I'll explain it to you.’ I got it call done and they said ‘That’s unbelievable’. And I said, ‘Well, that’s just one way, I got another way too.’
Casey wasn’t the first Hanford whistleblower. But he was the right guy at the right time. Opposition was mounting and Casey was a guy on the inside with a paper trail. So the government couldn’t ignore him.
Also…he testified 6 months after Chernobyl
News Anchor 1: MOSCOW TELEVISION TONIGHT.
News Anchor 2: [SPEAKS RUSSIAN]
News Anchor 3: An official announcement from Consul of Ministers. There has been an accident at the Chernobyl atomic power station.
News Anchor 1 : One of the atomic reactors at the Chernobyl atomic power plant in the city of Kiev was damaged…
News Anchor 4: Perhaps the worst accident in the short history of the nuclear power industry…
News Anchor 5: There’s no way to say how much lasting damage that cloud may have already caused.
CASEY: Our our N reactor was a, was a graphite reactor, very much similar to Chernobyl reactor. So, there was a fear- a rising of fear level, for sure, over Chernobyl.
Chernobyl put nuclear issues front of mind for politicians. The disaster in the Ukraine made shutting down a major employer in Washington State politically possible. So, the plant closes. At least for now.
CASEY: This is like October of 1986. Kay. So, then I come back, and it’s all in the newspapers- it’s everywhere. The plants are shut down. And Tri-cities hates me, because I’m going to ruin 12,000 jobs. And all that kind of stuff, so they’re fighting to stay open, or to get back open.1 they're fighting to stay open, or to get back open.
It actually employed over 15,000 people in 1987. But with some of the plants closing, that fell to 10-thousand. The Department of Energy hires a new contractor to oversee Hanford, and get they promise: we can fix these safety issues and get the plants back up and running.
CASEY: First thing they did is they laid me off. and they wanted nothing to do with me
Then the town turns on him, just Like they did with Tom Bailie. If you go against Hanford, you’re not just seen as an enemy of the plants, you’re seen as an enemy of the people. People snub Casey at little league games, a church pastor tells their congregation to boycott Casey’s side business, a yogurt shop. But for Casey, this goes beyond just suburban slights-- the people who ran Hanford were after him. They tapped his phones.
CASEY: I even have them on video out there with their little van.
My daughter accidentally video them. We lived on a call to sack and there they are. And she videotaped, you see the guy in the back of the van. It's hilarious.
Other Hanford whistleblowers have said this, too. And a federal inquiry confirmed it. They found that Hanford contractors had illegally used wiretaps and surveillance against its own employees.
All of this is happening as Congress gears up for more hearings.
CASEY: And so it was a big, it was a big mess for sure. Congress was really coming down on Reagan for his willingness to operate plants at such risk to the public.
Casey’s set to go back and testify again. But he says the folks at Hanford send over somebody to convince him not to do it.
CASEY: a young guy who was in charge of safety for the Department of Energy at Hanford.
Casey says they talked for a few hours over lunch, and this guy asks him to go easy on the DOE. He says that Hanford’s manager was thinking about running for president, and it wouldn’t look good if Casey keeps criticizing the safety of the plants.
CASEY: And he said, ‘Well, you know, here's the deal. We can give you a consultant job if this blows over. And we guarantee you at least a quarter of a million dollars a year, you'll have an office, you won't report to anybody. It'll be a sweet deal. It's going to work for you. I promise you, we're going to fix the problems.’
But Casey’s not after a sweetheart deal-- he just wants somebody to fix the plants. And he doesn’t believe that the D.O.E. is going to do that.
CASEY: There at the table, he said, ‘Casey, you're making me be more frank. I just, I don't know how to tell you this. But you know, we know, we know where your kids go to school. We know a lot about your family. And I cant assure the safety of them. I think something bad could happen to them if you keep this up’.
And I took that as a threat.
Casey’s not intimidated. He testifies in front of Congress. And Hanford, it closes.
It doesn’t go out with a bang though, it was more like a whimper. Buildings closed one by one. Often management said that this was only temporary -- you know, we’re just going to fix things up. But the cold war ends in 1991, and Hanford never does reboot its plutonium production. And quietly, it’s just over.
Casey won his fight against Hanford. And he also takes the contractors to court for harassment. That fight took about 15 years, but he won that too. Then… he just stopped fighting.
CASEY: This constantly fighting thing is not my nature. It’s just who I’ve become. And it doesn’t feel right.
And then I discovered, Oh my God, I am the world's renowned expert at finding your problems. And when I'm doing that I'm not looking for mine. And then all of a sudden there's a mirror -- one decides it's time to hold the mirror up, and that's literally crushing. It was for me anyways, and so that's what pushed me more into a personal transformation thing and I've been on that journey ever since.
Casey he says he’s working on his own problems now—not the nuclear industry’s. He started a brew pub with his son. He got really into Native American flutes. And now he’s writing a book. Casey’s fight is over-- but the Hanford story isn’t. After almost five decades of making plutonium... Hanford is the most toxic place in the western hemisphere.
So, the cleanup begins.
[Cheesy retro music]
In 1989, the federal government designates Hanford as a Superfund cleanup site.
EPA VIDEO: I’m Kenneth Lucas, a project manager for EPA’s superfund program. Years ago: people didn’t understand how certain chemical waste would affect people’s health and the environment. Many wastes were dumped on the ground, into rivers, or left out in the open. As a result, thousands of abandoned hazardous waste sites were created. If there’s a Superfund site in your neighbourhood, you’re probably wondering what will happen.
Designating something a Superfund Site brings brings in federal money. In this case… The EPA, the DOE, and the state of WA are all involved. They have to more than 50 million gallons of radioactive waste and heavy metals at Hanford. Most of that sludge is stored in 177 underground tanks. Many which are are known to be leaking .…
EPA VIDEO: Everyone wants a clean environment, a safe place to work, and raise our families. EPA understands this, and through the superfund program, we’re working to clean up waste sites, and make the environment safe. Now, and in the future .
Cheesy, inspiring EPA music aside: this cleanup isn’t going well. It’s the most costly cleanup in US history, and there have been major leaks, accidents, worker lawsuits, cost overruns, delays, even corporate kick-back schemes. But it’s a cash cow, and it could cost up to 700-billion dollars.
Current estimates say that the clean up will be done sometime between the year 2066 and the year 2102.
Hanford is still the lifeblood of Richland. The Hanford cleanup now employs over 9,000 people; almost as much as the plutonium production did. So, Hanford is the place that keeps on keeping on, even after the plants shut down.
Cleaning up Hanford’s toxic waste is one thing. But what about its toxic legacy? The people who lived downwind from the plant, would they get justice? That’s after the break.
I’m Gordon Katic, and you’re listening to Cited.
This is our last episode of our season! . So, I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone that made this possible. You mostly hear me, but it really takes a village. Editors and producers, research assistants, project managers and grant-writers, scholarly advisors and fact-checkers, a composer, a graphic designer, a lawyer, a web team… thanks to everyone who made this possible. You can find more about our team at citedpocast.com.
If you’re a long-time Cited listener you know we are prone to taking the occasional hiatus. We’re about to do that again, but not as long this time. We hope to be back with new documentaries sometime around Spring 2021. But, we’ll be launching a new show over the next few months. You’ll find some of it in this feed, so stay subscribed. Plus, our team makes other stuff. Like the show Crackdown-- it’s a show about the drug war, with drug users as war correspondents. I’ll link it in the show notes.
As always, please do send me your feedback. I want to know what you thought about this season. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org And to stay informed-- follow our social media channels. You’ll hear about our new season there first.
Welcome back to Cited. I’m Gordon Katic.
Hanford is closed. The cleanup has begun. But there’s still the Downwinders. Those people living in the shadow of Hanford. They’re sick—what will the government do to fix that?
And it wasn’t just Tom Bailie—the farmer you heard in the last episode. There are thousands of Downwinders. Some of them live in completely different states. Patricia Hoover is one of them.
PAT: I was eleven years old and I was very active in school and in sports. I was just a real active kid, and I just got sick and ran out of gas.
Pat grew up in Eastern Oregon. When she was little her family moved to Hermiston, a town about 40 miles south of Richland. At first, she had a normal childhood, but then…
PAT: My grades were going down and I was taken to the doctor and my thyroid gland had totally stopped working. It had just shut down.
The thyroid regulates a lot: mood, energy, weight. And with her thyroid shutting down, Pat was just too sick to play outside. Too tired, too depressed. So she pings from doctor to doctor -- and everyone seems baffled.
PAT: When doctors don't know what's going on, they call it idiopathic. It means cause unknown. And that's what was in my chart, my medical charts for my whole childhood. Idiopathic this, idiopathic that. Cause unknown. They didn’t know.
That's what I began to call my medical mystery tour.
None of this makes sense to her. Why was she having thyroid issues? And it isn’t just her.
PAT: Every single person in my family had thyroid disease and all were on thyroid hormone replacement. And we had no family history of thyroid disease of any kind in my mom or dad’s side of the family.
In her 20s, Pat develops this tumour in her neck that’s as big as a grapefruit -- it hurt to swallow, even wear turtlenecks. She went to one doctor who thought it was a goiter.
PAT: And she says, ‘Oh, you must have grown up in the Midwest where they didn't have iodized salt.’
Iodized salt prevents goiters-- they didn’t use it in the midwest, but they did in Oregon.
And I was like, ‘I'm -- look at my history. I was born. I'm a native Oregonian. I was born in the Dalles. I'd lived in Oregon my whole life. No, I'm not from the Midwest.’ And I mean, that was... I think that was the doctor that finally said, ‘Well, I have someone here in Portland I'd like you to see’, and gave us a name like Dr. John Wilson or something. And we'd look it up. And he's a psychiatrist.
And a that point having seen so many doctors and given so many histories and have them all say, we don't know what's going on. Um, then in my own head, I thought, well, maybe I do need to talk to a mental health provider.
Pat was someone who read the news -- she was actually a radio broadcaster-- but after she moved from the desert to the coast, she didn’t hear much about Hanford.
PAT: News from the east side of Oregon and Washington doesn't go over the Cascade Mountains for some reason.
All of Karen Dorne Steele’s reporting-- her stories about Tom and the Downwinders. Her stories about the Green Run (Remember, that’s the 1949 experiment that polluted the area). Well, Pat missed these stories.
In 1990, she was still all alone on her medical mystery tour.
PAT: I’d been sick for nine months and gradually going downhill, downhill. Same thing, being treated literally all over the country. You know, infectious disease people, the University of Washington Med School, a veterinarian in Long Beach. I mean, I have the Mayo Clinic in Rochester….
Pat was finally home after being hospitalized, still with no diagnosis.
PAT: I was unable to read, to hold the magazine, to hold the newspaper. And my husband said, oh, there's this show on PBS.
[Nova theme: TONIGHT ON NOVA]
PAT: And it's about Hanford. And that's the first time I ever knew that Hanford had exposed all those people with their emissions.
I was 43 years old.
After 43 years, her medical mystery is solved.
She starts wondering if anyone else is out there, and then she finds out about the Downwinders.
PAT: All those activist groups on the east side of Washington and Oregon had really, really been doing terrific work. Using the Freedom of Information Act to force the release of the documents. So, everybody was on board except Pat Hoover, who shows up, you know, in 1990 wanting to know more. [laughs] I wasn't the only one on a medical mystery tour.
Pat and the downwinders start looking for recognition, a government apology. And for restitution, the government should pay their medical bills. These are big bills for many Downwinders-- like with Pat, travelling around the country to see specialists. Eventually, she had to have her thyroid removed.
But here’s the problem: there’s no proof that Hanford is responsible. This might not make sense to you. After listening to the first part of our story, you know: Hanford did contaminate this area. But were there actually elevated cancer rates? And could you directly link the contamination to those particular health issues? Strangely, no. You’d need research for that. So, that was the first step for Pat and the Downwinders. Prove it.
PAT: And I just started digging and looking for information on radiation health effects. You have to remember, this is 1990. So, I am in oak boxes with index cards, literally digging for information, and not finding much at all. Which in itself was an answer. It was an answer. This was a secret project and it really got kept secret. [Laughs]
There was some research on radiation health effects. Like around Nagasaki, and Hiroshima, on the Marshall Islanders , and there was a test bomb in Utah. But in the US: nobody had ever studied what happens if you live downwind from a leaky plutonium production plant.
In 1990 the Energy Secretary acknowledged the people here were exposed to “high” doses of emissions. But he said, quote: "We don't know who was at the right spot at the wrong time."
This in and of itself is an interesting story. Historian Kate Brown says that, really throughout Hanford’s history, the scientists just didn’t want to study the area, because that would create a paper trail. Better to just not do the research.
But now with Hanford closed and all this public pressure, Congress has to act. It calls for two studies – one to figure out how much radiation the Downwinders had been exposed to, and another to figure out how that radiation affected their thyroids.
The government starts having community meetings. It’s a chance for them to explain their plans. And for Downwinders to talk directly to a committee that would advise the studies.
PAT : You're out in these rural areas of eastern Washington or eastern Oregon. They'd be in some gymnasium and they'd set the feds up on the stage with their suits and ties. And there, they would be above the crowd. And, you know, here we've got farmer Joe who just got off his combine, cutting wheat in the wheat harvest. And he's dirty and he's sitting out in the audience. And there-- it was intimidating for a lot of people
But Pat isn’t intimidated, she speaks up.
PAT: I just said that I'd had a lot of medical issues throughout my life and that there needed to be assistance for the people that were damaged from all the emissions from Hanford.
But Pat says she’s not impressed by what comes out of these government meetings.
PAT: It was a way to placate the people. The documents came out. It was clear that we had been damaged. And now the government was scurrying around trying to show that they cared, and they were going to come and talk to the people and let them say what they wanted in front of government agencies. And it was a PR campaign.
You’ll remember, the government has just started to fund two big studies on what Hanford did to the Downwinders. But Pat says, we shouldn’t trust this government research. And she knows it goes both ways. The government isn’t going to trust them - these Uneducated farmers and amateur epidemiologists. Even if they’re right, they don’t have the expert credentials.
That’s when Pat finds PSR.
PAT: Physicians for Social Responsibility. It’s an international organization. But they had an Oregon chapter in Portland.
It was a group of doctors and scientists who were against nuclear arms. She drives to their office, and someone says, ‘I know who you need to talk to’:
PAT: Rudi Nussbaum.
He’s a physicist, just retired from Portland State University, and he knows a thing or two about radiation. So the person at the PSR office picks up the phone, dials a number, and hands the receiver to Pat.
PAT: And this guy gets on the phone with a strong German accent. And I introduced myself. I said, I just found out that I am a Hanford Downwinder. I was exposed to radiation for my entire childhood living on the east side of Oregon.
At the end of our conversation, he said: You are part of America's nuclear holocaust.
Well, Rudi and his wife are Holocaust survivors.
Pat and Rudi decide to meet, along with other Downwinders and doctors from PSR.
The first thing the downwinders want, it’s just a letter. Something they can bring to their own doctors that validates them. Something from PSR that says: Hey, I’m a doctor, and Pat has radiation exposure. That’s what’s causing this, it isn’t all in her head.
They decide that everyone should meet in Hood River, Oregon. People drive for hours --
PAT: I mean, we're talking the whole east of the Cascades for Oregon, north Oregon and all of Washington and parts of Idaho, up to the Bitterroots. You know, it's a huge geographic area.
Thirty people made it.
PAT: And sat in this circle in this room, and just went around the room.
At this point, you might already know what people are going to say. The stories are familiar.
Pat: Thyroid disorders, stillbirths, birth defects, miscarriages, all kinds of birth anomalies… And.. I'm sorry, but it just makes me very emotional.
They were so respectful of the downwinders. I mean, from day one, they believed us. They didn't poo-poo us. They didn't tell us that we were crazy, that we needed all to go see psychiatrists.
And so it was so refreshing to have a team of doctors and scientists saying, okay, guys, help us, we want to help you.
They form a coalition: The North West Radiation Health Alliance.
PAT: We just called ourselves the Alliance
Rudi and the other doctors say, ‘Look, we can write you a doctor’s note, but we could do way better than that.’
PAT: We could do some kind of a survey of people's health.
What are the cancer rates of the Downwinders?? Plus, if the Alliance can demonstrate a strong enough correlation between those cancer rates, and the Hanford exposure levels-- you’d have to figure, The plants are responsible. So, they start a research project.
But, this is not your typical research project. It’s not a big grant-funded study coming out of some university lab. It’s a rag-tag coalition: farmers and townspeople, social justice activists, doctors and academics.
The traditional experts, the doctors, they know how to run a survey, analyze data, and present it to an academic audience. But what do you ask people? Who do you ask? And how do you ask it?
That’s where Pat and the downwinders come in. They bring their own expertise—their knowledge of the environment and its history and they come up with the right survey questions.
Pat: Where did you grow up? Where did you eat vegetables that you grew in your own garden? Did you drink local milk? Did you eat wild game? Did you fish in the river? You know, things we figured we need to know about that would point to their exposure.
Pat and the other volunteers gather in living rooms, sometimes at Rudi’s kitchen table. They draft surveys, they have the doctors look over it, put together mailing lists. Pat says they spend a small fortune on postage, photocopies and long distance phone bills.
PAT: We sent out sixteen hundred questionnaires and we got back eight hundred and one. We had shoeboxes full of these surveys and-- just a sec, I’ve got a piece of paper here-- Oh, okay, so I have the survey results. So, of the 801 responses, 222 of those were hypothyroid. That was the most common.
Hypothyroidism means you have an underactive thyroid, so it’s not producing the hormones you need. Hormones that regulate metabolism, ovulation, heart rate, body temperature.
PAT: And then all all types of thyroid conditions came up for us and lots of cancers. This is this is shocking. These are incredible numbers.
They found higher incidences of cancers in Downwinders compared to the average population -- and not just thyroid cancer: Colon cancer. Breast Cancer. Ovarian cancer. Central nervous system tumors. They also found higher rates of miscarriages.
Pat: So we spent $1800 in this six year project and ended up with seven peer reviewed scientific articles in the medical scientific literature, which is pretty amazing.
Within academia, this is pretty extraordinary. Not just for how productive it is, but how it did what it
did. It’s what you’d call community-engaged participatory research project. This is a kind of academic buzz term. Basically it means, involving the community in the study design.
PAT: Community-based participatory survey work has got to bridge the gap between scientific and lay investigations. You know, we just have to get the people that really experienced the exposures or toxicity or whatever-- they need to be part of the conversation. And I think that happened through The Alliance.
But this is still rare and pretty new. The Alliance was creating a model for how to study the health effects of radiation—a model that has since been emulated in other places.
So now, the downwinders have their research. Peer-reviewed articles, not childhood stories. To them, it was as close to proof as you’re going to get-- a strong correlation between Hanford exposures and their health issues.
The next step after proof is justice. They want recognition from the government, and they want the government to foot their healthcare bills.
In 1990, the lawsuits started and Pat Hoover wasn’t the only one.
There were suits from local Indigenous groups who fished in the Columbia; there were Oregonians who wanted the government to pay for their continued medical testing; and the Downwinders. There were as many as 5-thousand of them-- it eventually became a big class action lawsuit.
PAT : Of course, the government came right in and pooh poohed all that and said, ‘No, we're gonna prove it. And nothing happened with the Hanford emissions.’
A quick technical side note – the suit wasn’t against the feds. It was against the contractors who ran Hanford. But because those contractors ran Hanford on behalf of the feds, the government defended them. With the government on their side, these contractors basically had unlimited money.
Plus, the government was funding its own studies.
The first one was called the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project, or, HEDR. It was funded by the DOE, and run by a lab at Hanford. To avoid conflict of interest, it’s eventually transferred to the Centre for Disease control. It asked people where they lived and what they ate. It asked them if they grew their own food, if they drank their cow’s milk… It was trying to figure out how much radioactive exposure the Downwinders had.
The exposure estimates from HEDR, the first study, are then going to be used in the next government-funded study. This one also funded the Centre for Disease Control – it was called the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study. This one would compare exposure levels to thyroid issues, and see if there was a strong correlation.
So you’ve got two studies: one that looks at exposure rates, and the other that tries to correlate those exposures with thyroid issues. When that second study is done the downwinders learn about the results… not from the government, but in the New York Times. The headline read:
“NO RADIATION EFFECT FOUND AT NORTHWEST NUCLEAR SITE”
KAREN: They did find a slightly elevated levels of thyroid abnormalities and an unexplained 20% higher than normal infant death rate in the early years.
Again, this is journalist Karen Dorn Steele. She wrote those original stories that you heard about on the first episode. The story about the Green Run -- that botched government experiment that irradiated the region.
Karen also followed the government studies closely. The studies found no conclusive evidence of a direct link between the exposures, and the health effects. According to the studies, Hanford’s not to blame. It’s possible. But not probable.
KAREN: This inconclusive result of the thyroid study really angered the Downwinders, who asked the question, ‘Well, you found a dose-cancer correlation in the Marshall Islands, you found one in Chernobyl, and you found one in the Utah after the bomb test, so why not? Why not Hanford?’
The National Academies of Sciences did an independent review of the studies. They took some issue with how the results were presented—but overall, they said it was sound.
The Alliance couldn’t believe it. This ran totally against their own research. So, in 1999 Pat and the Alliance call their own press conference.
PAT this collaboration has bridged the gap between scientific and lay approaches to environmental health.
That’s Pat -- she’s wearing all white, and she has heaps of notes from yellow legal pads.
PAT: Our health survey has worked. We found elevated numbers of disease and health problems from this toxic poisoning. And we have the scientists and doctors to tell you about that today.
The Alliance scientists admit that there are issues with their work. Everyone in the survey identified as a Downwinder -- so maybe it’s giving you a bit of a skewed picture. They didn’t have enough money to run a control group. But the government studies? The Alliance scientists say it doesn’t measure up.
Rudi: As a scientist, I will say that the thyroid-- the Hutchinson thyroid study is very poor science.
This is Rudi Nussbaum. He’s that first doctor that Pat talked to on the phone. The doctor that believed her. He has white hair in a widow's peak, and he’s the only scientist at the table who isn’t wearing a tie.
Rudi: As a scientist, you go out and look at phenomena as broadly as you can possibly do. And you don't go in there with preconceived ideas to prove this or that. You go in there to see what there is.
Rudi thinks that the government was doing this research just to defend itself.
And he says they don’t actually have an answer to The Alliance’s research. In The Alliance’s sample, they found over 200 people with hypothyroidism. Sure, there’s a selection bias. But they found so much more than they expected. In a typical group this size, The Alliance expected to see about six people. What accounts for the discrepancy? Do you think that Iodine 131 might have something to do with it?
Rudi: Now, what a true scientist would do before he goes to the New York Times is to sit down and do a long and hard amount of thinking, to see-- hey, there must be something wrong. If you go through the medical literature, and the, and the epidemiological literature, there's no doubt that Iodine 131 produces health effects.
There are lots of methodological concerns about the government backed studies -- about what it did and did not take into account; about the dose estimates that they used as their baseline; about how air currents and topography weren’t figured into their calculations. It’s complicated. And messy. But according to Pat, there’s a deeper issue than epidemiological methodology.
PAT: The DOE was in charge. Well, the DOE is the entity that poisoned us in the first place.
I knew the government wouldn't admit to having harmed all these people. I mean, they just wouldn’t.
And Karen discovered the government wasn’t exactly a disinterested granting agency, funding independent experts.
KAREN: The Energy Department and also the main Justice Department, very concerned about not setting precedents for compensating civilians at all their nuclear weapons plants nationwide, they soon began to treat HEDR as what they called litigation defense.
She found records that showed that lawyers actually sat down with the scientists to discuss their methodologies.
KDS: And when I wrote that story, the, the lead lawyer for the Hanford trial-- the defence lawyer for the contractor -- was just furious. He asked for a change of venue for the trial because of the story, because they considered extremely damaging to their case. The judge turned him down. But that was a huge revelation that actually is wasn't so independent after all, and that lawyers were helping guide the work of HEDR.
The lawyers eventually cite the the government thyroid study to argue that there is no evidence of a direct link between Hanford and these health issues. And they fight Downwinders on this for years.
KAREN: I've covered a lot of trials, both you know, involving the government In private people, and usually there is… There's a finite amount of money that both sides can spend on a case. And in this case, I think a huge factor was the government, lawyers had infinite money from the US Treasury.
So everything was appealed. The defendant contractors for the government appealed every ruling in favour of the plaintiff.
One of the plaintiffs attorneys, he called it a scorched earth defence. And I think, I think it was. Unlimited money, unlimited time. And meanwhile, the down winters were dying.
The research and the scorched earth legal defense works. Out of thousands of people in these class action lawsuits, only two people ever came to a settlement. Many died before it went to court in 2005….
Pat does gets a teeny offer, $6,100. She refuses on principle.
The last case ended in 2015… 25 years after they first sued.
At the beginning of all this, Tom Bailie was dismissed. He’s just an uneducated farmer telling wild tales. Stories aren’t enough.
Karen Dorne Steel came in and she added journalism. She found the smoking gun-- documents that showed how Hanford had poisoned the region. But, there was no direct link between that poison and the Downwinders. So journalism wasn’t enough.
Pat Hoover came in peer-reviewed research. But that didn’t seem to make much of a difference either.
No matter what data they presented, it wasn’t really in anyone’s interest to listen to the downwinders.
So they never got what they really wanted: No recognition. No apology. No restitution. Hanford’s toxic legacy—that’s swept under the rug… mostly erased. Mostly forgotten.
After this long journey into the history of Hanford, I had to see it myself. And, you can too. Because it’s now a National Park. I enter a little office in what looks like a tiny strip mall on the outskirts of town.
GUIDE: Welcome everyone. Really nice to have you here this morning. You know you’re going on the B reactor tour this morning, right? Your’re not here for the Pre-Manhattan, or any of that sort of thing…
I’m greeted by a tour guide wearing a baseball cap, blue shorts, he looks a little bit like a mailman.
GUIDE: My name is Burt Speer. I am a retired Hanford employee. Worked out here for 36 years.
I have sign a waiver. This is pretty unique for a national park. It’s still run by the Department of Energy. And even though the B-Reactor is decommissioned, it’s still a nuclear reactor.
BURT: Sorry about this folks, but like I said, we do have to read this to you. Simply because visitors personal items as well as the tour bus are subject to search anytime during of the tour.
We’re going to a government restricted area. And you can only get out there with me. I’m your escort today. Here we go: Personal items are subject to inspection to ensure compliance. Dangerous weapons include blades longer than 4 inches, spring blades, any other knife or blade that opens, falls or is ejected into position by the force of gravity...
Before we actually go out to the plant, we gather in this small room. There are about 30 of us here. Almost everyone is older. One woman has a camera that hangs down from her neck, like one of those comic book tourists. She also has a bunch of National Park Service pins. Yes, Hanford has become a tourist location.
Burt turns down the lights and starts an informational video.
BURT: Everybody’s all ready? Well, let’s fire us off a video real quick then. Hopefully I won’t have to call my wife to make this work. Youtube!
This is the official history—the one that we began last episode with
VIDEO: December 1942, a small plane flew low over the desert landscape of eastern Washington State. The man sitting next to the pilot thought to himself -- this could be it. The man was army colonel Franklin Matthias. The vast expanse below him would eventually become the site of the world’s first plutonium production reactor. For Matthais and the federal government ...
The video doesn’t talk about the tens of thousands of lives lost at Nagasaki. It talks about the bomb for… well, just a few seconds really.
VIDEO: And, in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki Japan, on August 9, 1945.
Five days later, Japan surrendered, and WW2 was over [jolly music]
It doesn’t talk about the Downwinders either. This video is all about celebrating the enormous technical achievement that is the B-reactor.
VIDEO: The legacy of B reactor will live on in time. It’s contributions to science and engineering, nuclear engineering, and health physics makes it one of the marvels of the 20th century and a testament to the American Spirit.
BURT: One of the first major understatements you’re going to find in this program today. A real testament to the human spirit.
[Sound of getting on the bus]
We drive about 40 minutes out into the dessert towards the B-Reactor. I see barbed wire fence everywhere
BURT: What does it say on it? Oh it says a whole bunch of stuff. You will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law if you cross this fence, and that sort of thing…
Security is not what it used to be when we were in the plutonium production business. But we still -- it’s still a secure site. We have, every now and then somebody wants to come in and say how horrible of a place this is. That’s how they make a statement, is they cross the fence.
One thing I’ll mention now-- this is a really good time for this -- as long as Rick and I are wearing our blue shirts, we do not have opinions about anything. We will state vetted, proven facts. Because, of course, like everyone, we have lots of opinions. Some right, some wrong. Some kind of so-so. So yeah, don’t ask our opinions.
As we pull in, again, the bathroom will be on the left hand side of the bus. Again, I do recommend you visit it, even if you don’t need to. We call it the Royal Flush for a reason. But what we’d like to do it get on inside ...
We arrive at the B-Reactor—and, there’s not much to say. It really just looks like an old concrete industrial building. If I didn ’t know they made plutonium here I might have thought they made auto parts.
I walk through a green hallway with historical posters on the wall and then we get to the main event. The heart of the reactor: The Pile.
Do you remember those pin screen toys? You know exactly what I mean, even if you don’t remember the name. It’s that small black square with the hundreds of steel pins—you’d press your hand against the pins, and on the other side it would leave an imprint.
That’s what this looks like, a wall of 100s of pins. These are actually aluminum processing tubes. There’s 2,004 of them— the tubes are used to separate plutonium from uranium.
We wander off from The Pile and we go into a control room. Burt begins another lecture
BURT: Okay, Recap: The pilot gauges, where the inlet water pressure was measured There’s 2004 process tubes, so how many water pressure gauges do we have? 2004. This is a water pressure gauge…
Honestly, this is interminably boring. So anticlimactic. I’ve travelled really far to see this place-- the heart of the story. Now I’m here and I just… zone out.
BURT: When Enrico Fermi had his very first reactor, the Chicago Pile One-- he had a boron tip control rod, hanging over top…
At first, I blame myself. Why can’t you focus? This an important thing to understand! How is plutonium made?
But, I eventually stop blaming myself and I just get mad. There is something perverse about what’s going on here. It’s the contrast between the world-historic nature of this place, and the banal technical lecture I’m being given.
BURT This was the PFP step -- the plutonium finishing plant. Because when the material left here, it leaves in a semi-liquid slurry. It has to be finished before you can do anything with it. So, as of 1949…
Burt is taking great pains to seem apolitical. There doesn’t seem to be much of a message beyond well, science and engineering are…Cool.
Sure.But I think that this place is where an unspeakable crime happened. You know, the bomb. A brutal crime against the Japanese people, and really, against humanity. It ushered in the nuclear age—and several times, we had a bunch of near misses.
What happened here, it’s really no exaggeration to say, it almost wiped out our civilization. And it still might. Even today, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says that nuclear weapons are one of the major existential threats facing humanity. The famous ‘doomsday clock’ is just 100 seconds to midnight— the closest that it’s ever been.
To me, this building is a moral blight; it’s a mistake; it’s a crime—it’s not just a technical achievement, even if it is technically impressive. But that’s just my opinion; you might love what they did here. But even for you—you then expect some triumphalism. Or at least some delicate moral accounting. Nope, mostly technically details.
We walk into the pump room. We’re on a steel catwalk and there are a series of large tubes below us.
GUIDE: … Processing to clean the water... I was telling some people that pure water doesn’t pick up radioactivity. It’s sediments, or things in the water that picks up the radioactivity …
Water was pumped in from the Columbia to cool down the reactors, and then it was sent right back.
I think about the whitefish exposed to toxic effluent. I think about the Indigenous people who use the river around Hanford have higher risks of cancer and immune diseases. I think about Tom’s boy scout troop getting sick. But, I didn’t hear any of that.
GUIDE: Fortunately the Columbia river is very clean, with a huge amount of water. even though these reactors used a tremendous amount of water, it was only something like 10 per cent of the total flow, so if anything radioactive did get into the river, it was diluted out right away, within probably literally a couple of feet or something like that, if not a hundred yards.
That Downwinder history is erased. But most this lecture, it’s not about that. It’s about how the pumps work. It feels like I’m just getting an expert telling me how nuclear technology works—and that’s sort of, apolitical. Like Burt says: I don’t get into my opinions.
But if you listened to Cited this season, you know that expertise is inherently political. It’s about choices—what do we do, what do we fund? Who gets to decide? What do we remember? And where do our experts end up? Unfortunately, they too often end up in places like this—they put their moral and political blinders on, and they just do their job.
The B-Reactor tour normalizes what happened here. It makes it boring, ordinary, nothing to
get worked up about. Just another science class that you can zone out of.
This is the most toxic place in the western hemisphere. Because of Hanford. But In Richland, the town built to support these plants, you wouldn’t notice that. In fact, you wouldn’t even notice Hanford at all-- it’s like this nondescript industrial park out in the desert. You have places like this in your town, places you don’t go to-- places you don’t see.
But in Richland, what you do see is all the nuclear nostalgia around town. Here, Hanford is still celebrated.
PAT: I think it's outrageous that Richlands still has, you know, the mascot is the Bombers and the mushroom cloud as their logo. And they have Atomic Lanes and, you know, Plutonium Porter beer in their taverns.
It's, it's to me, it's it's... tragic that those people out there have to turn that around in their own minds and celebrate it because they're in it and living it and they have to justify what they're doing. I mean, you can't be a scientist and go work at the plant and make your home in Richland and then know that you've been part of something that was that devastating, or you drive yourself nuts.
I’m back again in Tom’s Bailey’s neighborhood, the place with all the cancers; this is where our journey began. And as I drop Tom off at his house and say goodbye, I ask him about how Hanford is commemorated. And the fact that Richland is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
TOM BAILIE: They're telling a fairy tale. They talk about how wonderful it is. But they don't want to talk about the environmental cost and the human toll.
The whole hanford history is based on propaganda. Feel good propaganda. We did this, we’re the safest place on earth. Nobody got sick. It's all a lie.
Here you go, right here. This is the turn off. That’s good enough, right here. What other questions you got?
GORDON: I guess those are the main ones. Yeah, I guess the only thing is, is how does how does all the like rah-rah kinda fairytale stuff make you feel? You know, the history that they're telling now?
TOM : It pisses me off. Makes me angry. I still have anger. I forgive them, but I'm still angry. I'm still pissed off.
GORDON: Have yourself a good night.
TOM: I’m water under the bridge, Kid
GORDON: Oh, don’t say that, you’re still fighting.
TOM: Fuck ‘em
This episode was produced by me, Gordon Katic, and Polly Leger. With editing help from Acey Rowe.
Nicole Yakashiro was our research assistant, and Aurora Tejeida was our fact-checker.
Our theme song and original music is by our composer, Mike Barber. Dakota Koop is our graphic designer.
Cited’s production manager is David Tobiaz. And Cited’s executive producers are Gordon Katic and Sam Fenn.
Thanks to historian Sarah Fox for helping us understand this history. And alsoKate Brown, author of “Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters.” Check it out, and also check out Michael D’Antonio’s “Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal.” Both these books were indispensable to us, and they really helped us tell this story.
Also, if you want to learn more about the Downwinder lawsuits against Hanford, there’s another book I’d recommend: The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight For Atomic Justice. That’s from Trisha T. Pritikin, with a forward from Karen Dorn Steele
You can find links to those and other things at citedpodcast.com.
I’d like to thank the many others we talked to along the way-- including historians Linda M. Richards and Robert Franklin. As well as, Trisha Pritikin, Tom Carpenter, John Fox, and Maynard Plahuta. Thanks also to Karen Richards who helped us out with a tape sync.
This episode was funded in part by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council. It’s part of a larger project on the politics of historical commemoration. Professor Eagle Glassheim at the University of British Columbia is the academic lead on that project.
Cited is produced out of the Centre of Ethics at the University of Toronto, which is on the traditional land of Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat People.
Cited is also produced out of the Michael Smith Laboratory at the University of British Columbia -- that’s on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.