A little over ten years ago traveled to Richland, Washington next to the 570 square mile Hanford Reservation — home of the federal nuclear weapons industry run by corporate contractors and also the home of several nuclear power plants. The occasion was a debate about the hazards of nuclear power with physicist Ralph Lapp before a very vocal and partisan crowd of technicians and scientists who worked in this nuclear industry hotbed.
I still remember how gung ho in defense of atomic power were the scientists, engineers and other workers. Greeting me over Richlands main street were banners declaring “We Love Plutonium,” The high school football team was called the Richland Bombers and its insignia was a mushroom cloud. There was the Atomic Body Shop, Atomic Lanes and other similarly named shops.
Ralph Lapp, who should have known better, was caught up with the fervor of the crowd and made the most blanket assertions about how safe nuclear power was and how safe and well run was the Hanford Reservation. The audience roared its approval.
I replied at one point with these words: “Of course there’s a great amount of radioactive materials on the Hanford Reservation. The question is: Are the workers being told the truth when there is a leak or when there is a spill, or when they’re exposed…to radioactive materials?
The audience would not hear any skepticism to their nuclear religion. One scientist even asked me why have not demanded the evacuation of Colorado since that state’s altitude exposes the people there to more natural radiation.
Well, I now have another reason to remember that debate. It now is quite clear that the people at Hanford were lied to by officials in an extended coverup starting in 1944 when the first plutonium was manufactured.
A few days ago, a technical panel of radiation and health experts commissioned by the Department of Energy reported that in just three years ending in 1947, around 13,000 residents in the ten counties around Hanford were exposed to a level of airborne, radiation equivalent to 1-700 times the level the Department of Energy now considers safe for civilians.
They study also concluded that hundreds of thousands of residents of eastern Washington state, Oregon and Idaho were secretly and regularly exposed to large amounts of radiation from Hanford in the air, water and food they ingested. Some infants and children were exposed to doses of radiation to their thyroid of 2900 rads — more than the comparative exposures to the thyroid from the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine four wears ago. These American youngsters took much of the radiation from the milk of cows who ate contaminated grass.
Millions of curies of radioactive particles were flushed for years into the Columbia River — a main source of drinking water and fish.
These releases were deliberate, knowing and cavalier. When families complained of high cancer rates, high thyroid disorders or other radiation‑ connected diseases, Hanford officials told them there was no reason whatsoever to believe that the cause came trot the nuclear reservation.
In recent years, similar lies, coverups and false assurances have been documented by a recently chastened Department of Energy at other nuclear weapons installations such as at Rocky Flats (Colorado), Savannah River (Georgia‑ South Carolina) and Furnald near Cincinnati. Perhaps the estimated $100 billion or more “cleanup” bill helped the Department to try openness for a change.
Last February, another special panel advised that the program for monitoring the health of workers in the nuclear weapons industry be moved out of the Department of Energy because of severe damage to the program’s credibility. Honest scientists who raised concerns were demoted, rebuked or ousted.
Censorship and secrecy were rampant. In one celebrated case. that arose the late 1970s, Dr. Thomas Mancuso, a U University of Pittsburgh epidemiologist, was given the pink slip by the Energy Department after he published data showing higher than expected cancer rates among Hanford workers.
In the light of subsequent revelations about what was going on at Hanford, it is instructive for people to be very cautious toward present day soothing statements about atomic power.
Segments of much debate with Ralph Lapp and questions from the audience were made into a PBS documentary, prepared by Station KCTS/9 in Seattle. It was shown on the PAS network a few months later in 1980. It should be replayed again this year. Let your PBS station know if you agree.