America's Chernobyl

Aired July 29, 2020

First Aired:




Male voice: I’m a member of what’s known as the low-use segment of the population. We’re basically guinea pigs for the atomic age. We’re just the surviving guinea pigs.


GORDON KATIC: I’m Gordon Katic, and this is Cited.




Woman Singing: Oh say can you see. By the dawn’s early light.


The local beauty queen is standing in the middle of a cordoned off street.
She’s blonde, she’s wearing a red poke-a-dot dress, with a sash and tiara.  She’s facing an American flag hanging from a raised fire truck ladder. Behind her… soldiers. 


Woman Singing: Or’ the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming


This is Richland, WA. It’s about a three hour drive south east of Seattle. It’s a small-ish place, about 58,000 people. If you’ve never heard of it, well, it’s not that well-known. But I actually think it’s one of the most important cities in the history of America


 Woman Singing: For the land of the free and the home of the Brave! [applause]


And on this scorching September day, I’m here with the people of Richland to watch a parade.


Parade announcer: Alright, Next up is the Richland Highschool Marching Band Bombers. City of Richland is proud of its city and traditions, and Richland High School Marching band is part of that pride... [Drum line]


They’re celebrating their town’s contribution to the Second World War, and to the Cold War. It feels like a nostalgic costume party. There are  girl scouts in green and in khaki uniforms from the ‘40s. 


Parade announcer 2: Now take a look at this 1954 bus, that ran during the Cold War Era.


I see antique busses, fire trucks and a giant green tank-looking thing.


Parade announcer 1: Next up is the tri-city military vehicle club. What a site to see here.


But my favourite car of the bunch-- an early 60s baby blue Ford Thunderbird...


Parade announcer 1:[LAUGHS] That Thunderbird has a name. Trudy May

Parade announcer 2: You won’t believe who is in that car the car today with Trudy May. One of the original Rosie the Riveters! That is right. [Applause]


...And to close out the parade: A sheriff’s posse. On horseback. 


Parade announcer 1:And the pooper scooper. 


Parade announcer 2:Big shout out to the pooper scooper! 


Parade announcer 1:Couldn’t do it without you.


Parade announcer 2:That’s right.


[Swing music]


This feels full-on Americana. Think Jimmy Stewart, or John Wayne. Or the Great American Songbook 



… You know: Sinatra crooning to a song by Cole Porter, or Johnny Mercer…. 



The parade moves to a park by the river. A band plays all the old hits while dressed up swing dances do the Lindy Hop.




They’re reliving a life that I’ve heard of but I’m too young to have actually seen. You know, a booming post-war small town. A nice place, built on solidly middle-class factory jobs. And a community that’s mostly white, church-going, and salt-of-the-earth. 

It feels nostalgic. This post-war prosperity. But in Richland and the surrounding Tri-Cities area, it sort of still exists.  Because of one reason, and that’s what they’re really celebrating today.


MC: I welcome you to Atomic Frontier Day. Today we are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Manhattan Project.


Richland is a company town. The company is the federal government, and its product is plutonium. 



Archival video: About 75 miles north west of Walla Walla, WA, in an isolated expanse of open desert...


It began in December of 1942.


Archival video: Civilization entered into a new age—an age for which it would never emerge the same. 


Lt. Col Franklin Matthias was flying in a small military plane over rural Washington. He was about to start the largest and most challenging construction project in the world, so he needed the perfect location. He found it here.


Archival video: It is also here in 1943, where vast herds of wild horses once overran the prairie, that the 400,000 government reservation that the atomic Hanford energy plant was created


What he saw below him checked all his boxes. It was big, big enough for three reactors. There was a nearby river to cool those reactors. But most importantly for Col. Matthias, is what he didn’t see. It was one of the most sparsely populated areas in the country. Perfect for a top secret project. And so, it would become one of the three Manhattan Project Sites.


50,000 people would people show up. It became a kind of ‘scientific Las Vegas.’ A city in the desert, born almost overnight. And it was huge gamble: Col. Matthias rushed the production of a plutonium production plant-- the world’s first industrial scale plutonium production plant. But to the workers there: they were betting blind. There knew were building something to help fight the War -- but as to what exactly it was, they didn’t know.


To the vast majority of workers there, it was just “the product.” That is, until August 6th, 1945. 


President Truman: A short time ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. We have spent more than $2 billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history. And we have won..


And three days later:


Archival Newsreel : Here at Nagasaki, the explosion was concentrated in an area of one square mile, and even more complete destruction is said to have resulted.


The plutonium in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki came from Hanford. This was good news to Richland: the people here cheered when they finally learned what they hat built. They believed their work had helped end the war.

Archival Newsreel: The battleship Missouri becomes the scene of an unforgettable ceremony, marking the complete and formal surrender of Japan


But Hanford didn’t power down its reactors after the Japanese surrender. Because America had a new enemy: The Soviets. Hanford’s plutonium would be crucial to winning the arms race. So the plant grew, and the town thrived.


Archival Newsreel, 1963: Hello everybody from Richland, WA. Our NBC camera and microphone are setup in the midst of a community that has grown more rapidly than any other in WA state. 


It became much more than a place to process plutonium. Hanford, at one point, had 9 different reactors, it had a power, there were 900 different buildings, and many of them major research laboratories.


Archival: And there is a tremendous amount of research going on here. At Hanford biologists study the effects of radioactivity on fish—these experiments could be of tremendous importance. Increasing their understanding of the processes of human life!  


Richland became a scientific Mecca. Truly, a city run by experts—More PhDs per capita than any other place in the U.S. Take that, Cambridge!


And those experts ran everything. I mean, the government contractors who ran the plant, didn’t just run the plant -- they ran the city. The police force, the newspapers, even the prices in local shops; It was a total command economy. There was basically no free market, and no freedom of speech. But, you could be a working-class laborer, and still live the kind of life you heard about in those songs




Richland was offered a kind of devil’s bargain – good schools, good paychecks, good jobs. As long as you don’t ask too many questions. They took the bargain.      


And here at Atomic Frontier Days, 75 years after the plant went live, the story is pretty well the same: Richland Loves Hanford. 


You can see it everywhere. The bowling alley is called the Atomic Bowl. I ate at the Atomic Ale Brewpub andEatery. The high school team is called the Bombers and their logo is a literally a mushroom cloud. I actually met a guy who had a mushroom cloud tattooed on his shoulder. 


These are atomic patriots—and today is about celebrating their atomic heritage. 




But there’s another history that isn’t being told here.




Radio: Sunday September 15th Roadways on the Hanford site are currently barren dry. [beep] Hanford Weather Forecast. Partly cloudy…


So I get in my rental car and drive for about half an hour out of Richland and into farmland.


[Radio: This message will repeat. [Beep] Hanford Weather Forecast….


I pull into an isolated road surrounded by corn fields. I drive down, and I reach a small red house, and  there are old cars scattered about the property. I’m here to pick up Tom Bailie—he’s going to take me on a tour around his neighborhood.




Tom: You found it!

Gordon: I found it alright!

Tom: How are you?

Gordon: I’m great. How are you?

Tom: I’m old! Winston, go lay down!


Gordon: So, tell me where to go


Tom: Out the driveway.


Tom is in his mid-70s. He’s a farmer, been a farmer all his life. He wears a ball cap, blue jeans. And he has Parkinson’s.


Tom: This is a bad time of the day for me. That’s why I hesitated going on this ride. The tenor of my voice goes away and I start talking like an old man and shaking like an old man. It pisses me off, but I can’t stop it


We’re driving around a tiny farming community called Mesa. It’s tiny, less than 500 people. They mostly grow corn and potatoes here. Handford is just on the other side of the Columbia river. Tom grew up here. As we drive past each of the modest farmer’s homes… he describes the people who’ve lived in them.


Tom: This lady had nine miscarriages, Mormon lady. Keep going.

And Her son’s dying of cancer, he’s married to one of my daughters.

The next house, husband and wife died of cancer. And the son went to Vietnam. He's a marine in the Marine Corps. Came home, got brain cancer and died.

This is the Bailey farm here. My two sisters have had cancer. 

All my uncles that lived here had cancer. My father had cancer. My mother had cancer.


As we drive past Tom’s childhood home. He tells me about all the cancer in his family. And then, we just keep driving. And then… we just keep driving.  


Tom:  Turn right here. Where that pivot is, is where Suzie Barrows lived. She got cancer and died. This a Mormon family, they had one daughter that was missing an elbow. The next is Johnson's. Johnson girls takes thyroid medication


Tom remembers one neighbor after the other. Cancer. Thyroid disease. Miscarriages. Birth defects. A kid born without an elbow. He’s completely matter of fact about it.  He calls this “Death Mile”


Tom: There was a house here, they both died of cancer. And their son Johnny. He had sores all over, all the way through school. Always infected. ‘Pus Head’, we called him.


Gordon: That's mean.


Tom : Oh well, we were mean little shits.


Gordon: Yeah, I mean, I was a mean little shit too, but none of my classmates had cancer. But what's it like? I mean, did you really not know that -- that that's not normal. 


Tom: No! We thought it was normal. That’s God's will, Grandma said. Live till  you get the cancer and you die.


Tom invites me into his house, and we sit in his living room as the sun beats down on us through a big window.


Tom: Now they’re going to bark, and I got two more dogs over here that are probably going to bark


Gordon: Aw well, a little barking never hurt nobody.


Right behind him I see a computer desk with stacks of paper all over it. They’re mostly about Hanford.


Tom: I’m a member who is known as a low use segment of the population. We’re basically guinea pigs for the atomic age. We’re just the surviving guinea pigs. 


He’s obsessive, even conspiratorial. I see the computer is on a webpage about UFOs over Hanford. The people I talked to before I arrived here, they warned me about this kind of thing. They told me some of his stories may seem a bit outlandish. He grabs a stack of files. This is his research. It’s about six inches thick.  He’s become an anti-nuclear crusader.  But it didn’t start that way.


Tom: No, not at all. I was a redneck beer drinking farmer. I mean longhaired people didn't exist in my life. I wanted to go to Vietnam. 


He starts telling me about his childhood. He tells me one of his earliest memories from when he was just seven years old.


Tom:  I remember looking out across the field and here come a line of soldiers and they had spaceman looking guys in the front with Geiger counters sweeping the soil. Then they have a soldier without a suit and he's picked up a scoop full of durt and put it in a guy's gunny sack. 


He had seen men like this before, with their equipment sweeping the soil. One time they even gave him candy. They’d just walk around the house doing these tests.


Tom: The way I take it is they had an accident. And you're picking up particles of proscenium or flakes of plutonium. That's my guess. 


The stories that Tom tells from his childhood—they’re like if David Lynch did a morbid reimagining of Tom Sawyer. 

He tells me about seeing pink  snow, about toxic tumbleweeds, about riding his motorbike into a top-secret military installation and being chased away by soldiers. He tells me about his days as a boy scout.


Tom: Troop 151 Ringgold Washington.


And that time they ate sturgeon from the river on a camping trip, and everyone threw up.


Tom: Don't eat the surgeon from the Columbia River. That's a rule around here everybody around all the locals know it. 

Tom was riddled by all these puzzling  health problems growing up: he had a hole in his chest, sores all over, and he had to take thyroid medication. 


Tom: My mother fed us a thyroid pill every morning. A little pill.


Tom says his mother was as a stenographer for some of the manhattan project scientists—So he thinks she must have known something her neighbors didn’t. But she wouldn’t say.


The Baillie family was pretty self-sufficient. It was a farm. They ate food they grew in the garden, they drank milk from their own cows. But Tom says the animals started to have these strange birth defects. They had deformed sheep and deformed ponies.. 


Tom: In the ninth grade my science fair project -- sorry, 8th grade,- my science fair project was a deformed shetland pony colt. Looked like a lizard.
Picked it up put in a fish bowl about this big, and we melted wax around to seal the top off.


He brought the fishbowl to school. He called the project “Aberrations in DNA.”


Tom: The judges were from Hanford. They were pretty shocked. They kept talking to themselves quietly. Where did you get this? My pasture. Where do you live? Told ‘em.

The next year Tom switched schools— and he tried the project over again. 


Tom: We had a science class and I thought I’d get double credit on my science project. Everyone looked at it and laughed, thought it was funnier than hell.

Science teacher Mr. Rogers called Hanford and they came and picked it up.

Gordon: We you pissed off that they took it?

Tom: It was my science project! But I got an A!  Mr. Rogers felt sorry for me and gave me a grade. 


Despite the mangled  Shetland pony, the family cancer and all the local birth defects, when Tom would ask questions, his family would dismiss him--  “God’s Will”.   




Karen:  I think my editors described me as being really stubborn.


This is Karen Dorn Steele.  Karen lives in Spokane, Washington – That’s up near the Idaho border, about a two hour drive north east from Tom.


Karen: In my early career, I was a public television producer and on air reporter. And then when I went to the newspaper I was very interested in environmental issues. And that's how I got hooked into the Hanford stories in the first place.


Karen had been digging around Hanford for awhile. She published one piece about safety concerns at the site, and people started paying attention.  People started calling Karen and giving her tips. One of them… 

Karen: ...Was Tom Bailey. I thought he was really an interesting character really. I mean, he, you know, he was very opinionated. And I couldn't quite tell what he was trying to tell me about Hanford, but I was really intrigued by him


Karen wasn’t sure if she could trust Tom. She didn’t want to drive to Richland for nothing. But Tom was already headed to Spokane, where Karen lives. 


Tom was there to have some words with his Congressman. He didn’t make that two hour line to complain about Hanford though. 


Tom: They had put a power line through this farm. See that tower out there. And we resisted it. And I was pissed off and I wen t to this fundraise to bitch to my congressman.


It was a swanky cocktail fundraiser with all the local bigwigs...


Tom:  And I got in and I got in an argument with the Dean of Washington State University and upset the whole fundraising event… 


Karen: Well, he had quite a bit of wine. So he was kind of louder than I learned later that he usually is.


Karen saved the party—she took Tom upstairs to cool him down. And then she asked him--


Karen:  And I asked him if he was worried about living so close to Hanford, and he just made a sarcastic remark. He said well...

Tom:  “Hanford never does anything except kill and deform a few sheep once and awhile.” 


Karen: And of course, I was intrigued by that. 


Tom: She said “Really?”. Yeah. “Can I come down and see it sometime?” Sure little gal, come on down. And the story just unfolded.

Tom gave Karen a tour of the neighborhood. Just like he gave me. And then he introduced her to the neighbors. One of them was a nam named F.R. Chen, hw worked for the local water district


Karen: And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, back in the, you know, in the 60s, I saw confidential memos about how you shouldn't eat white fish from the Columbia River because they'd been eating radioactive moss out of the effluent of one of the reactors’, and that was classified information.


Maybe that’ s why Tom and all the other boy scouts threw up the sturgeon on the camping trip?

Karen: what if this man Mr. Chen did was no longer feed his children any fish out of the river. But he couldn't tell his neighbours because he would have lost his job 


Maybe that’s why Tom’s mom never said anything ethier. Tom also introduced her to Leon and Juanita Andrewjowski.


Karen : They said, well, we've be keeping a death map.


A death map. 


Juanita spread the map over her kitchen table. It was hand drawn, and on it, it had all these little marks. X for heart attacks, circles for cancer. There were thirty-five Xs and thirty-two circles.


Karen: And I had never seen anything like that before. You know, the narrative in Hanford was always, you know, ‘everybody in this area supports us and nothing's wrong.’

As Tom is driving Karen back, it starts to dawn on him.
We’re in the car again, and Tom points out the spot where he was with Karen. The spot where it all clicked. 


Tom: Right there’s where Karen Dorn Steele, I said stop the car! She said “what?”. “Karen, it’s dawning on me. This whole place is contaminated.”
She says “yeah, I know”.  “It really is, isn’t it!” “Yes it is”... I didn’t know it.


Gordon: You hadn't? You hadn't really put the pieces together? 


Tom: No, I didn’t put the two together. I thought it was a joke. I thought it was funny.

Gordon: What’s funny about that? What do you mean?

Tom: Well, everybody has it! You just say, “had your thyroid medicine yet?” It’s kind of a joke. 




Karen wrote an article her tour of Tom’s neighborhood. It came out July 28th, 1985.

Karen: And the headline of the Sunday Spokesman Review article was “Downwinders Living In Fear”. Do you want me to read like the first graph or two of it? Yeah.  Okay, so this is how the story started. “Farmer Tom Bailie stood amid shoulder high corn on a bluff overlooking the Hanford Nuclear reservation”.


The photo shows Tom, hands on his hips, looking a little like Robert Redford, and there’s hazy outline of the plant in the background

Karen: “As a dust  storm swept a huge brown cloud across the nuclear reservation Bailey remarked , this is the funnel and we’re the Hanford Downwinders. And that two word description, the “Hanford Downwinders” would stick,


Karen writes about how these people downwind from Hanford had elevated cancer rates, and inexplicable thyroid issues. She also writes a side bar-- 

Karen: “The Night the Little Demons Were Born,” and this is how it started: “ Nels Allison vividly remembers the gruesome sights in his lambing shed during the winter of 1961. ‘They look like little demons,’  Allison said of the strangely deformed lambs born dead that year. The bones of the tiny animals were set so rigidly that Allison had to reach inside the ewes and break the bones to get the lambs out. The ewes died as well. More than 100 other lambs on at least six nearby farms also were born severely defective the same year.


Gordon: When did things change for you, like politically?


Tom: What’s the date on this article. [paper crinkles] 1985. July, 1985. That's the day I started asking questions. 

Tom becomes the posterboy -- the most high-profile critic of Hanford. He even gets national media attention. But his neighbours resent him for all of this. And as we drive past their houses… I tried to figure out why.


Tom: You gotta remember, the people that I represent are the dead-- turn left--  The dead, the dying and unborn. Those are the only people I speak for. So when people are healthy and are making a good living, they want me to shut up and not take a chance of scaring people into not eating the crops.


Gordon : Right-- Because if they if they admit it to themselves their livelihood...


Tom: ‘Yeah, you're right, Tom, but just shut the fuck up. Leave it alone. Forget about  it.’ Even my mother said ‘it’s the past, forget about it.’


Gordon: Even even with your siblings, even having cancers your mother would say forget about it?


Tom: “It’s history” she said.



When Karen’s article comes out, people in the area are angry. Not at Hanford, but at Tom. People would flip him off, try to start fights. His bank tells him to stop talking to reporters -- and then they pull his credit. He says he even received death threats -- and was run off the road.


Tom: I was a pariah in the community. All those people that talked to Karen and gave her their stories to Karen-- they said they wish they’d never seen me.


And a group  formed, a group called the Hanford Family. The were mostly managers and supervisors from the plant. They wrote letters to the editor, calling Tom a liar. 


Tom: When I first got them, they hurt my feelings. They stung like being hit with a whip.


He kept most of them, in that folder of his.


Tom: Read this one--

Gordon: [Reading] ‘I urge that you view this Hanford Downwinder  more as a storyteller than a safety expert, or a farming expert for that matter. Sincerely, Michael R. Fox P HD president.’  


Tom: love it! I immediately said ‘I'm no longer a farmer I'm a storyteller’-- because that's what I am! I'm not educated. I can't talk about radionuclides properly. You can challenge my educational skill level. I'm a storyteller. All I do is tell a story about what I saw when I was growing up as a kid.


Is Tom just telling stories? Or is there something strange going on at Hanford? After the break: we lift the atomic curtain. 


I’m Gordon Katic, and you’re listening to Cited. Back in one minute.  




GORDON: This is the part of the program where I sell you an audio book subscription service. Psych! As you know, we don’t play ads on Cited. But sometimes, I take the opportunity to plug things, do a bit of housekeeping, and ask you for favours.
This week: well, we’re just about done the season, so if haven’t already, I think it’s time to do us a solid.. 


A few weeks ago I was giving away mugs. Well, I’ve got a couple more—so the deal is out there Write us review on iTunes or Stitcher, and then send me a screen grab of it--  to I’ll randomly select three people and I’ll send them mugs.


But also, I have something really exciting for you today. Have you notice all the great music on our docs this season? All original stuff made by our composer,  Mike Barber. Well, Mike put together an--  yes, Cited Podcast has an album. You can find it online at, and I’ll link it in the show notes. 


OK, back to our regular scheduled programming.




Tom Bailie the storyteller, was telling strange stories from his childhood—but what did they all amount to?


What did they say about Hanford? What did they prove? There had never been any big explosions at Hanford, and no official warnings. But Tom and his neighbors lived downwind from the plant, and so many of them were sick. This couldn’t all be coincidence.


Was it a leak? Was it toxic dumping? Tom didn’t know, and he certainly didn’t have any proof. So he and Karen Dorn Steele, the journalist, they were pushing for government documents—they wanted to find a smoking gun. There was also this anti-nuclear group in Spokane -- the Hanford Education Action League, or HEAL. They wanted to know, too.


But the government didn’t give in: Hanford is safe they said, and we aren’t going to give away our nuclear secrets. You have to remember, this isn’t just any old power plant-- it’s where the US makes most of its plutonium.  


But someone else didn’t like what was going on at Hanford. Somebody on the inside. 


Casey: And you're you're with Cited. Is that what it is? I like the name because my grandson always says to me, ‘Papa, I'm so cited!’


Casey Ruud is a family man -- In 1985, he’s got three kids in elementary school and another on the way. A journalist once described him as “pretty demanding children’s soccer coach.”


Casey is a nuclear safety inspector. For a while he hopped around from different commercial nuclear power plants—and then, this job at Hanford came up. It was a little different though… you know, weapons-grade plutonium.


Casey: you know, I had a lot of people who were anti nukes, who would debate with me. And my attitude was, they're going to do it, whether I'm there or not. So I might as well be a person who helps them do it correctly.


Plus, the community was comfortable. This was just what he needed to raise a young family. So, he took the job. 


He was hired by Rockwell— that’s a private contractor that ran the plant on behalf of the Department of Energy. He became their lead safety auditor.

Casey: We’re talking nuclear safety from a standpoint of worker protection, environmental protection, and protection for the public, from, not only the nuclear weapons we produced, but from the waste that we produced to create the nuclear weapons. 


The guy who hired me, the manager of the audits organization, was getting ready to retire and he had a guilty conscience for not doing their job for the last 10-15 years he was in charge. He basically turned the dogs loose. And that was me.


Of course, it’s not like they sat him down and said, “Listen… we’ve been neglecting the rules for decades.” But he found this out pretty quick.


Casey: It was complete chaos when I got there.


For example, the pipes that moved plutonium around-- Casey found out that the plans for those had been written out on little memo pads.


Casey: And when I interviewed the engineers, they said, ‘they're not giving us time to do any, any calculations or anything, so they're just asking us to do our best guess.’


If something went wrong with those pipes…

Casey: it could either have a catastrophic accident, it could have a criticality where it would kill everyone in the plant, or it could have an explosion that could result in you know, a 700 mile long cloud up into Canada.


He even saw employees illegally dumping nuclear waste directly onto the ground, where it could just.. blow away. So that was it. The dogs were out. In his first audit, Casey compiles a list of nearly 30 violations -- some were so serious that he tells his bosses the plant muscat o shut down, immediately.


Casey: And I'll never forget this guy John came in. And he looked at that, and he looked at me, he looked at my boss, and he had his minions with him behind him, he had a room full of people. And he picked up the book with all the findings in it, and he slammed it down on the table. He's says you know, ‘There's no fucking way that we will even respond to these findings, get the fuck out.’ And that's the words he used to me and my boss.


 I don't know how to say this, but just to say it: they wouldn't say poop if they had a mouthful. That was the requirement. You gotta have the right degree, but more importantly, you're not going to oppose the system as it is.


Casey was hired to be a safety auditor. But he quickly he learned his real job was to shut up.


But he wouldn’t. So, his bosses tied a different tact.


Casey: They brought in our vice president, they brought in all the general manager and everybody, and all the plant manager, and they promise--  ‘I promise we will get this we got this, we will fix these problems. It's it's really going to be okay. And we promise we'll fix it give us three months’…


Three months. Casey gives them three months to get their act together.




Tom, Karen, and that activist group HEAL-- they keep pushing for government documents. Eventually, the state of Washington gets involved too, they start pressuring the feds for environmental records. Everyone’s trying to figure out what’s going on at Hanford. What’s behind that veil of government secrecy? 

The public pressure was too much to ignore, so in February 1986 the Department of Energy relented.  Michael Lawrence -- the DOE’s manager at Hanford – he calls a press conference.


 Karen: They put it in a fairly small room. So it had this feeling of being very, very  crowded 


It’s packed. State officials. Activists. Journalists from all over the region. 


Michael Lawrence stands beside this massive stack of papers, I mean 19,000 pages of freshly declassified documents--

Karen: Yeah, it's about three feet about three feet tall. Yeah.


They’re in big banker’s boxes.


He’s following a time-honored tradition of government departments everywhere: bury your critics in paper. He stands in front of that room, and he says that these documents show Hanford hadn’t harmed anybody. Hanford has, quote, “Nothing to hide.”

Karen grabs her bankers’ box of documents and rushes into another room. She’s with this  guy Tim Conor, Tim’s with that activist group HEAL. They’re rushing  through the papers, looking for something --


Karen: Frantically looking through going back to you know, as far as we could go back to the World War II years, and the late ‘40s.

And it was actually Tim who said, “Look at this,” and he handed me the, the document…


It said: “Radioactive contamination in the environs of the Hanford Works for the period October, November, December 1949”

Karen: It had maps on it that showed radiation plumes. That went all the way, not only from in the Tri-Cities, but all the way to Spokane-- to our driveway-- and all the way west along the Columbia River, almost to Portland. And so we both looked at each other and thought, ‘Wow, what is this?’


This is the piece of paper that changes everything. Because it reveals deliberate experiment.



Karen:  From December 2nd to the 3rd of 1949, the US 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


This experiment was known as the Green Run ., 

Karen: And the experiment’s name, The Green Run, was a reference to the unusually hot, or ‘green’, fuel that it released into the atmosphere, including radioactive Iodine 131. 


Their plan was to track a giant plume of Iodine 131 and see how it behaved in the atmosphere. This was  a dry run for a spy operation. The Americans thought: the Soviets are using the same fuel in their plants; so if we deliberately release it above Hanford, and track it then we’ll know how to track in the USSR.


KAREN: That gave them a clue to determine how far away from the Soviet reactors their surveillance planes could detect the emissions from a plutonium separation plant.


But the experiment didn’t go as expected.

KAREN: The day the green run occurred they were, the Hanford officials were very worried because it was an unstable, stormy, rainy day. 


The bad weather drove the plume onto the pastures below, contaminating the grass. Dairy cattle ate that radioactive grass, and the radioactivity ended up in their milk. Children drank it, and the radiation would end up in their thyroid. 


In 1949, the year of the Green Run, Tom was two. His community was exposed to between 100 to 500 times the “tolerance level” for Iodine 131,


For Tom, this was his smoking gun. It meant that his stories weren't wild conspiracy theories or delusions. They happened. And the Green Run explained why. It explained why so many of his neighbors had cancers, why his mom gave him a  thyroid pill every morning, why soldiers were picking up dirt from his farm. It explained the birth defects, it explained his science fair exhibit, and for Tom: it also explained why he survived. 


Tom: All the good kids in my class, my first grade class, the girls at ate their vegetables and drank their milk -- they’re all dead. I lied about what I ate and had twinkies and pop for lunch.


Hanford poisoned their food supply.


Karen: It was outrageous  I mean it really sparked anger in me that they would do this to people.

It's just an outrageous exploitation of of civilians in the rush to do something military that was deemed ‘the mission’ at the time, but a mission that that ploughed full steam ahead with no consequences for for the people. So yeah, it really, frankly pissed me off.


Karen combed through more documents as they slowly became declassified, and the picture that emerged was staggering. Hundreds of billions of gallons of chemical waste from Hanford discharged into rivers, dumped into the ground, or stored in cracked, leaking tanks. When you add it all up there was enough radioactive waste in the soil to make the 40 Nagasaki-sized bombs. Tom and his neighbors were exposed to more radiation than the children of Chernobyl. These farmers they’re some of the most irradiated people on earth.




But, like Tom’s mom said, “it’s history,” right? I mean, we’re mostly talking about the 1940s and 50s. Nuclear technology was in its infancy. What about the 1980s, when these documents were coming out ? Surely the plant a lot safer then. Well, that’s what Casey Ruud – our man on the inside -- was looking at. Remember, he put together a pretty damning safety audit for his bosses. But they said, give us three months, and we’ll get our act together. Casey comes back three months later. And somehow, it’s even worse.


Casey : Plutonium was stored in drums in the hallway that had access for anybody and the, and the,  and the double person tamper indicating devices that are soldered on the drum, they're all broken loose and people were taking what they needed to fill their other drums. It was out of control, beyond even when we first looked at it three months before.

So Again, Casey writes up an audit: This plant isn’t safe. His bosses call meeting, and again, they say: ‘We’re going to try to do better. But can we all agree on this, let’s keep the plants running. 

Casey: I said, Absolutely not. You have given me no justification to keep these plants running. So my demand is the same. 


The next day, they issued a interim memorandum with everybody that was at the meeting with all their names on it saying everybody there agreed that we would continue and they had my name on it.


So I wrote a rebuttal memorandum back to them officially signed and everything saying, no-- you need to shut the plants down. 

His bosses are just clearly not listening. So Casey is confronted with a rather stark choice. He can stubbornly dig in his heels, or he can be the company guy. Just look away. And remember he’s 31 years old. He has four little kids, one of them is brand new. So, just like the farmers around Tom who turn a blind eye, he has every reason to do the same. That’s the carrot for Casey. But there’s also the stick. 

“SILKWOOD” TRAILER: On November 13th, 1974, Karen Silkwood, an employee at an Oklahoma nuclear facility, was on her way to meet with a reporter from the New York Times. She never got there.

Karen Silkwood was a nuclear whistleblower. Then she died mysteriously Her death was ruled a single car accident single-car accident, but her life was turned into a movie. Casey saw that movie -- it came out right before he started his job at Hanford


But despite all that pressure. Casey knew what he had to do.


Casey: It seemed like it was handed to me like the stick was handed to me in a relay. And it was my turn to run with it. And if I dropped it, then I was dropping the protection of the public. 


He decides to blow the whistle. He starts leaking part of his audits to the Seattle times, anonymously. And he also starts talking with his congressman. 


Casey: You can't go out there and go after some stuff and work your way through the system. You got to you gotta you gotta hit the home run the first strike. 


The company that ran Hanford at the time, Rockwell, ot didn’t know what Casey was up to. But it did know, that these exposes from the Seattle Times were a major problem, so the bosses them needed Casey on their side.


Casey: I'll never forget the Vice President came in and sat with me. And he said, ‘Well, Casey, the President of Rockwell,  is going to go on TV tonight. He's going to say that you never asked the plants to be shut down’. And I said, ‘Well, Jim, you can't. That's not true’. He said, ‘Well, you're either a company man or you're not’. And the words he used for me is, ‘it’s time to shit or get off the pot.’


The very next day, Casey decides to drop his anonymity, he’s going to go public. Sits down with Eric Nalder of the Seattle Times.

Casey: He came to my house did seven hours of interviews with me with my brand  new little son on my lap


It runs a front page story: “HANFORD AUDITOR BREAKS HIS SILENCE”. 

But Casey’s not in Richland when the article comes out… he’s on a plane, on his way to D.C. to talk to Congress.. 

Casey: They were worried about the Rockwell security people not letting me get there, kind of Karen Silkwood stuff, because I was going to bring them my actual audits. So I flew under an assumed name and I didn't know where to stay. So I ended up staying at the Watergate. [laughs]. I’m a runner, and I woke up about 3 o’clock in the morning went for a run along the Potomac, watched the rowers out there. 


While watching those rowers, Casey gets his thoughts together. He prepares himself for what he’s about to do.


There’s no turning back-- once he does this, there’ll be blowback. He’ll lose his job-- and who knows what this will mean for him, his wife, and his young family. But he knows he has to do it.


That’s next week. On Cited’s season finale: Mister Ruud goes to Washington.


Casey: There at the table, he said, ‘Casey, you’re making me be more frank. I don’t know how to tell you this, but we know where your kids go to school, we know a lot about your family, and I can’t assure the safety of them. I think something bad could happen to them if you keep this up.


We go into the nuclear reactor.


Really nice to have you here this morning. You know you’re going on the B-Reactor Tour?

I don’t think they should bury it deep down like that. Just put it on the surface. It’s not going to hurt anything, just put it on the surface.


People are afraid--


Oh, people are afraid of anything radioactive.


The Downwinders struggle for justice.

The government had accused all the Downwinders of having radiophobia, and that we were hysterical housewives with soap opera mentality. That is one of the things we were called by the feds -- that  is in the federal register, that statement.


The whole Hanford history is based on propaganda, feel good propaganda. We did this, we accomplished that, we’re the safest place on the planet, nobody got sick. It’s all a lie.


At the end of our conversation he said, ‘You are part of America’s nuclear Holocaust.’




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 by our composer, Mike Barber, and Dakota Koop is our graphic designer.  


Cited’s production manager is David Tobiaz. And Cited’s executive producers areGordon Katic and Sam Fenn.


We’d like to thank historian Sarah Fox for helping us understand this history. As well as historian Kate 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’sAtomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal.” Both books were indispensable to us, and they really helped us tell this story. You can find links to those and others things at But don’t read ahead, because you might find some spoilers. 


I’d also like to thank the many other people we talked to along the way-- including historians Linda M. Richards and Robert Franklin, as well as, Pat Hoover, Trisha Pritikin, Tom Carpenter, John Fox, and Maynard Plahuta.


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. 


Thanks for listening, and tune in next week for our season finale.