Book Review: The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices From The Fight For Atomic Justice by Trisha T. Pritikin (University Press of Kansas)

Reviewed by KAY MATTHEWS

The Hanford Plaintiffs is a story that will resonate with those of us who find ourselves living in Manhattan Project ‘”sacrifice zones,” or the places Major General Leslie R. Groves chose to build Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico and the Hanford nuclear plant in the Columbia River Valley in Washington. Both facility sites were chosen because of their distance from population centers, and just as it did at LANL, the government had to hurriedly construct housing in the small farming communities surrounding Hanford to house the workers whose job was to produce the plutonium used in the first nuclear bomb detonated over Nagasaki to end World War II in the Pacific.

In the production of plutonium, the fission of U-235 nuclei, the potential for explosions is omnipresent, threatening the lives of workers. Also in the production of plutonium, large quantities of iodine-131 and other radioactive gases, released from two hundred foot high towers, are carried downwind over hundreds of miles. In addition to the workers brought in to run the Hanford reactors, the people who lived in these downwind communities (some of whom were veterans given stipends by the government as part of the Columbia Basin farmland program to settle there in the 1950s) lived in the pathway of these radioactive chemicals.

The author of this book, Trisha T. Pritikin, is one of thousands of downwinders who suffered diseases caused by I-131 and other toxins: thyroid cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism (Grave’s Disease), Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, infertility, and other autoimmune disorders. Pritikin gives voice to these downwinders, weaving their stories throughout this thorough examination of their fight for compensation and justice.

Perhaps the most demoralizing lesson of Pritikin’s account is how the Cold War turned what could have been an end to the Manhattan Project, an end to nuclear weapons development, into a legacy of nuclear proliferation, sickness and death, and at the now shuttered Hanford, a toxic Superfund site that continues to poison and pollute. As the atomic race heated up between the Soviet Union and the U.S., the plutonium used in bomb testing in the Pacific Proving Grounds was produced at Hanford. Along with the other Manhattan Project laboratories, management of Hanford was transferred to the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946, and thus ensued decades of testing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. Hanford’s workforce expanded to build new reactors, and the children of this workforce and the unwitting residents within the downwind region became its toxic legacy.

Most of the people who are interviewed in Pritikin’s book were children born in the 1940s through the 1960s—the years of maximum plutonium production—who were exposed to routine releases and accidents at Hanford. They drank the milk (or their mothers did while they were in utero) and ate the vegetables that were saturated with I-131, which would attack their immune systems and cause cancers as they grew into adults. Unlike the more visible clouds of the above ground testing of atomic bombs at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) that created another class of downwinders, these invisible contaminants released from Hanford remained a secret until 1986 when the Department of Energy (DOE) finally declassified documents that revealed Hanford’s legacy of radiation releases downwind.

The people who were getting sick knew well before this official release of information that they were the victims of Hanford’s radiation. In one of the most chilling stories, Brenda Weaver tells of the illness and deformities she and her family suffered. Born in 1947, the family moved from Oregon to the Columbia Basin so her father could farm as part of the veterans program previously mentioned. They drank the local milk and ate local fruits and vegetables as well as recreated on the Columbia River that flowed right next to the Hanford reactors. Her first child, a daughter, was born with a serious birth defect, both she her daughter have hypothyroidism, she had breast cancer, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, and has also had skin cancer. “I feel that Hanford downwinders are living leftovers of the nuclear age. We are the skeletons, the graveyard of what is left.”

Until the declassification of documents, however, there was little legal action they could take. Most of the research being conducted on the effects of radiation on downwinders was at the Nevada Test Site regions where growing numbers of cancer were being reported and studied by epidemiologists. In 1979, a congressional hearing obtained AEC records that revealed the government had covered up dose levels in a 1956 test of the effects of radiation on sheep at Hanford that resulted in lawsuits by Utah farmers who lost their lambs and ewes to I-131 fallout (they lost the lawsuit).

The first class action lawsuit by NTS downwinders, Allen v. United States, was filed in 1982. The Warren Amendment, passed in the Reagan administration, required that the U.S. government, not individual contractors, be the defendant in all lawsuits involving atomic weapons testing, meaning cases would be heard in federal, not state courts. This was the first of many hurdles placed before the plaintiffs that Pritikin, who herself is an attorney, painstakingly explains in several chapters leading up to the legal actions finally filed by Hanford downwinders who would have to navigate their own hurdles. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say, the government fought the scientists and attorneys who sought justice for the litigants every step of the way.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Allen v. United States just after the release, in 1986, of classified historical documents that revealed Hanford’s legacy of radiation releases downwind (in a 1949 experiment Hanford purposely released 5,500 curies of iodine-131 to emulate what the Russians might do to rush their nuclear bomb program). This opened the floodgates for 3,000 Hanford litigants whose case was known as In re Hanford Nuclear Reservation Litigation. Again, Pritikin leads the reader through these legal machinations with a sure hand, explaining how the litigants were faced with proving different classifications of injury causation based on inadequate radiation dose reconstruction. In 2005, 15 years after the first claims had been filed, the first jury trial (individual plaintiffs were randomly selected to represent the thousands of claims) awarded only two plaintiffs damages: $227, 508 and $317, 251. In 2013, a second set of plaintiffs was selected for a jury trial, including author Pritikin, who suffers from hypoparathyroidism as well as other ailments. She writes, “I desperately wanted to share my story. As a personal injury plaintiff, I had waited almost 24 years for this opportunity.”

But the litigants instead went into settlement negotiations and the jury trial was cancelled; she, along with many other claimants, were forced to settle. One of their attorneys called the entire process a “scorched earth defense,” referring to the fact that the attorneys for the Hanford contractors (unlike in NTS, Hanford claims were against contractors, not the federal government), spent $80 million taxpayer dollars to defend against the downwinders.

For 25 years Hanford downwinders sought justice for the damage Hanford had inflicted during its nuclear weapons program. In the end, only two plaintiffs were awarded damages by a jury while most claimants received undisclosed settlements (of mostly modest amounts). Today, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is the most toxic place in the United States, sitting above 56 millions gallons of radioactive waste leaking into the ground. The Trump administration wants to reduce clean-up funding there, which under a contract with the infamous Bechtel Corporation, has already had numerous cost overruns and postponements.

Marcy Lawless

I want to end with Marcy Lawless’s story, one that illustrates the unfairness of the dose reconstruction process that was used to eliminate many plaintiffs’ claims. Lawless was born in Spokane, Washington in 1946 and later moved to several downwind communities closer to Hanford where she spend her entire childhood. She has autoimmune hypothyroidism, gastrointestinal problems, Hashimoto’s, and memory issues. After learning of the Hanford radiation releases in 1986, she filed a personal injury claim in the downwinder litigation for her thyroid disease. But under the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Program, which was used to assess claimants exposure to I-131 (a program challenged by epidemiologists as underestimating radiation doses to downwinders), it was determined her exposure dose as a child was too low to legally prove that her thyroid disease was caused by Hanford radioiodine. She was taken off the plaintiffs’ list in 2011. Three years later she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.