Who are the “Hanford Downwinders”?
The most accurate definition of “Hanford Downwinder” includes anyone who lived within the vast multi-state region downwind or downriver of the federal Hanford facility, located in south central Washington State, during the decades in which Hanford produced plutonium for nuclear weapons. Airborne radioactive byproducts of plutonium production spread during this period through eastern Washington, into southwestern Canada, into northern Idaho, western Montana, and northern Oregon. Hanford also routinely dumped arsenic-76, neptunium-239, phosphorus-32, sodium-24 and zinc-65, among other radioactive substances, into the Columbia River over the period 1944-1971. Plutonium was produced at Hanford from 1944 through around 1987, with highest peaks of production during the first approximately fifteen years of this period. Hanford’s reactors produced 67.4 metric tons of plutonium including 54.5 MT of weapons grade plutonium. The last Hanford plutonium production reactor was shut down in 1987.
The Hanford Downwinder litigation is almost entirely limited to people with thyroid or parathyroid disease or cancer. These are the diseases known to be associated with exposure to radioactive iodine. Almost a million curies of radioactive iodine, or I-131, were released from Hanford over four decades of operation.
However, later phases of Hanford litigation will include plaintiffs with non-thyroid cancers. Other “biologically significant” (potentially harmful to human health) radionuclides were released into the air and the Columbia River from Hanford, and the cancers suffered by this group of plaintiffs may be related to those exposures.
It may seem odd that legal action over radiation exposures which occurred decades ago would just now be coming to trial. There are several reasons for the timing of the Hanford litigation. First and foremost, the Department of Energy (DOE) did not disclose offsite radiation releases from the Hanford facility, continuous releases which had begun in 1945, until it was all but forced to do so in 1986. Had it not been for growing public pressure from advocates representing the many people who had lived in the Hanford area and who were concerned over health problems these people had begun to experience, the DOE would most likely have continued to keep these radiation releases classified.
Secondly, chronic “low dose” exposures like those of the Hanford Downwinders are characteristically followed by “latency periods” which often last thirty or more years before acute symptoms of disease start to appear. Most of us, exposed in the late 1940s and 1950s, did not develop full blown thyroid disease, parathyroid disease, or cancer until the mid 1980s after latency periods had passed. Early symptoms of future disease had begun to manifest themselves, but no one understood the source of these mysterious early onset illnesses. People like me were not aware of the possible connection between Hanford and our deteriorating health until the 1986 declassification of documents by the DOE chronicling Hanford’s radiation releases. For many of us, with this information about our radioiodine and other exposures, this was the first time we were correctly diagnosed with the thyroid or parathyroid pathology which Hanford exposures more than likely caused.
Some 5000 plaintiffs originally sued the contractors that had operated Hanford over decades of offsite radiation releases, alleging that these radiation releases had caused cancer and other injuries and illness.
Most of the Downwinders have yet to see their day in court because this is one of the slowest moving legal actions in history. This case has been grinding along now for twenty two years and counting, with few Downwinders having recovered compensation for their injuries. Plaintiffs’ claims are for personal injury, the cases consolidated in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Washington in 1991.
Private defense attorneys hired by the Department of Energy have billed the government more than $50 million to defend Hanford’s contractors. The defense is funded by taxpayer dollars under an agreement which indemnifies the contractors who ran Hanford from all liability. Contractor immunity was later built into the federal law, Price Anderson, which governs nuclear accidents and incidents. So, even though the contractors are the defendants in the suit, taxpayer dollars pay the private attorneys who defend them.
Meanwhile, plaintiffs’ counsel are forced to generate their own funding to support the plaintiffs’ cases.
Clearly, we have here a very uneven playing field.