This month, in my hometown of Richland, Washington, people are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Manhattan Project–the secret venture that brought us the atomic bomb.
The month-long commemoration activities have been planned for years. The event opened with “For Your Eyes Only” — A James Bond-Themed Cold War Party” and includes weekend “Bus Tours of the B Reactor and T Plant” at Hanford, our friendly old neighborhood nuclear weapons facility. But, until last week, people like me—the “Downwinders” who were poisoned by Hanford’s radiation discharges throughout the Pacific Northwest–were nowhere to be seen on the celebration agenda.
A few weeks ago, after a persistent and tenacious effort by our small group of health-damaged Downwinders and a few tireless supporters, we were invited at the 11th hour to speak at the 70th commemoration. On October 25, Kate Brown, author of Plutopia, will tell the story of the human toll of living downwind from Hanford.
I am relieved to have a voice at this event, and grateful to the organizers for finding a way to fit us in. But this is far from the first time Downwinders have faced dissent and denial in their own towns and neighborhoods. I am so tired of these divisions, of the angry confrontations with those, oblivious to our deaths and illnesses, who say Hanford did not damage our health. I am so disheartened that many don’t think of us– or deny our reality–when Hanford matters arise. So tired of those who would rather we disappear, or finish dying out. We were once neighbors and friends. Our humanity has somehow gotten lost in the politics surrounding Hanford’s legacy.
I was born in October of 1950, in the Atomic Energy Commission’s Kadlec Hospital in Richland, in the shadow of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Hanford pumped out plutonium for decades during the Cold War, after fueling the bomb that decimated Nagasaki.
We lived in a small two-story box, a government “F” house on Stevens Drive. My father, an engineer, worked at the plant. My family spent countless weekends on adventures out to the islands in the Columbia River, in the boat my Dad had built in our backyard.
I loved those outings. There was nothing quite like the cooling rush of swimming in the smooth flowing waters of the river. River waters into which over 114 million curies of radiation were released between 1944 and 1971. I made many a mean mud pie from the beach silt on the islands. River silt that I now know contained radioactive cobalt-60.
Fighting to be Heard
We have fought to be seen, heard and helped ever since the news came out about offsite Hanford radiation releases more than twenty years ago. We fought for our health to be monitored—the government put programs in place but never funded them. (Our government has thus been “shut down” to us for twenty years.)
In countries like Russia and Japan, victims don’t have to prove causality in order to be helped; they need only to prove they lived in contaminated areas. The Russian government provided 3 billion dollars to victims of the Chernobyl disaster. Japan offers care to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima survivors.
In stark contrast, the US government has provided populations exposed to Hanford’s offsite radiation releases neither medical monitoring nor care for radiogenic disease and cancer.
We Still Have Hope
Many of us are also involved in The Hanford Downwinder litigation, now in its 23rd year. We still hope, after more than two decades, to see our day in court on our claims for personal injury. Here, too, the burden has been placed on us to prove the causal connection between our individual cancers and other devastating illnesses, and the radiation discharges that repeatedly exposed us, particularly in childhood, to significant risk of developing cancers and other radiogenic diseases.
So in my hometown, and others like mine across the US, we who must go to court and to the press for help are seen as the enemy, the people who bring negative attention to beloved towns.
We who bear the scars of Hanford are not the enemy. We are its children.
I understand that in my hometown, and in other such sites, the Downwinders’ problems are controversial and unpleasant. Radioactive rivers and contaminated soil don’t sell houses; public acknowledgement of the human toll isn’t exactly good for economic development. And I get that some who lived in the pathway of Hanford’s radiation releases escaped unscathed. I know now that my family’s genetic makeup reflected our sensitivity and susceptibility to health damage from radiation. I understand that those who still live near Hanford have their own lives to live.
Please Welcome Us Home
But I am tired of feeling like a stranger in my own birthplace. I did nothing wrong. My parents did nothing wrong.
It’s time for the Downwinders to be welcomed home.
Home to Richland; home to America. I harbor the hope that, with our upcoming participation in the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Manhattan Project and the Hanford facility, the tide will begin to turn.
With the support of our community, we Downwinders, now far less numerous and physically weakened, may find the strength to continue our struggle for compassion and understanding. Not just for our cause, but for all victims of radiation exposure.
I herald the start of this healing because, like so many others, and like the parents I lost, I loved Richland. And all I want, all we want, is for it to love us back.