On Dec. 12, Congress passed legislation to create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park at three nuclear plants in Washington state, New Mexico and Tennessee. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on Dec. 19. The park will preserve historic buildings, structures and nuclear artifacts at the sites where the first atomic bombs were created. Public officials in Richland, Washington, near the Hanford B Reactor are rejoicing. Tourism promoters hope that the Hanford plant will become a major historical tourist attraction.
But not everyone is celebrating. As a victim of radiation discharged downwind from that plant, my feelings are mixed.
My father was an engineer at Hanford from the 1940s to ’60s. I spent my childhood playing in the poisoned Columbia River and drinking radioactive milk. Both my parents died of cancer related to Hanford radiation exposure. I’m alive today, I believe, because I had my thyroid gland removed at the first sign of cancer. I now live with tetany, pain and bone-numbing fatigue.
Constructed during World War II, the Hanford B Reactor was the first full-size weapons-grade plutonium production reactor in the world. It made plutonium for the first test of an atomic bomb, the Trinity test, in 1945, and for the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. The biggest producer of plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the Hanford site remained in operation through 1987.
The site covertly emitted more than 750,000 curies of radioactive iodine and tens of thousands of curies of other highly radioactive byproducts into unsuspecting downwind communities. At least 350 million curies’ worth of radioactive waste is stored in Hanford’s leaking underground tanks. Most off-site releases were intentional, part of the normal operating order. They poisoned the air, water and land across four U.S. states and Canada from late 1944 to the 1970s. Thousands of Hanford Downwinders — people who lived downwind from or worked at Hanford — have become ill or have died of cancers as the result of radiation exposure.
Many of the surviving victims — our numbers keep dwindling — have pursued the only legal recourse available: Filing personal injury suits against the contractors that operated the Hanford plant. We have been fighting for our lives and livelihoods without financial help or governmental recognition. For more than 20 years, along with nearly 2,000 others, I have been enmeshed in Hanford Downwinders litigation. Many of these victims have been denied any compensation. Others, exhausted from the endless legal process and facing mounting medical bills, have resigned themselves to accepting meager settlements in the range of a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.
Meanwhile, Richland business leaders and politicians have been working tirelessly to preserve the B Reactor. Mayor David Rose anticipates major economic benefits, including new hotels, restaurants, wineries and other tourism-related perks from Manhattan Project tourism. As the local Tri-City Herald has reported, Gary Petersen, vice president of the Tri-City Development Council, welcomed the passage of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park legislation by opening a celebratory bottle of Gentleman Jack bourbon that he kept “in his office for years, waiting for the day he could celebrate the creation of a national park.”
Throughout, Hanford Downwinders continued to be ignored. In October the Hanford History Partnership, a collaborative project among Washington State University and several regional organizations, organized the 70th anniversary of the B Reactor with “a James Bond–themed Cold War party.” We were not invited. The organizers eventually caved in to pressure from the Downwinders and included a panel discussion featuring those who grew up in the shadow of the troubled site.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with increasing tourism and bringing money into the region. But the ongoing revelry reinforces the cognitive dissonance that has led proponents of the Manhattan Project to celebrate the bomb-building sites while treating the victims of the plants’ radiation discharges as pariahs.
The bombs built by the Hanford plants seem a relic of the distant past. But the damage caused by Hanford’s radiation is a part of my present and that of many others who still suffer with the legacy of Hanford on a daily basis.
At the very minimum, the history shared in the park must include the story of those exposed to the radiation discharged from the three sites. But this appears unlikely. The Downwinders don’t attract positive press to the new park at Hanford. And unfortunately, the U.S. government is not on our side either.
The legacy of the Manhattan Project is not represented solely by the atomic science. It is also reflected in its destructive effects on the human body, a cautionary tale learned from the broken lives of Downwinders not just near Hanford but around the world. The human toll of this project remains a story that must not be silenced or ignored.