Plutonium Production and Risk to Surrounding Communities
The first reactor, a huge graphite cylinder used in the production of plutonium, started up on September 27, 1944. Hanford’s initial plutonium shipment left for Los Alamos by caravan on February 3, 1945 . The first atomic bomb in the world was detonated at the Trinity Site in central New Mexico on July 16,1945, relying on Hanford plutonium.
Three weeks later, an almost identical plutonium bomb, called “Fat Man,” was dropped on Nagasaki, also triggered by Hanford plutonium. Back at the production site, Hanford secretly released hundreds of harmful radioactive substances into the environment through a chemical process used to separate plutonium and uranium from fuel rods [9, 10]. Some of these releases were intentional and some accidental [11, 12]. In 1944, Hanford released its first several hundred curies of radioiodine-131 (I-131) . I-131 is one of many short-lived radionuclides of iodine produced in large quantities during nuclear fission. I-131 very easily becomes airborne and can travel long distances . People can be exposed to I-131 through inhalation and/or ingestion. In general, radioiodine is primarily uptaken by the thyroid gland and parathyroids at the base of the neck. If enough radioiodine reaches the thyroid, thyroid disease or thyroid cancer can result. If left untreated, hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) can lead to loss of mental function and physical energy, and can even lead to coma and death. Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) can cause a range of disabling conditions, including heart arrhythmias. Thyroid cancer, while often treatable, can kill; living with it can be a nightmare.
When the Hanford facility released radioiodine, it deposited in pastures downwind from the site where dairy cows and goats grazed. As a result, milk from the local dairies and backyard cows and goats contained radioiodine. This is of particular concern to children who often drink more milk than adults and are therefore at a greater risk of contracting thyroid diseases. Furthermore, com- pared with adults, children have smaller thyroid glands and receive a larger dose per unit of radioiodine ingested . For example, a newborn’s thyroid dose is about 16 times higher than an adult’s dose, per ingested micro-curie of I-131 . In addition to being exposed to I-131 through milk consumption, some members of communities surrounding the Hanford site were exposed by eating contaminated fruits and vegetables and breathing contaminated air.
Culture of Secrecy
During World War II, Hanford and the other Manhattan Project sites operated under a culture of secrecy. They adopted a security system known as “compart- mentalization” where workers were told only what was necessary to perform their jobs [17, p. 3]. This compartmentalization continued after the end of World War II, as Hanford was transferred to civilian control.
The culture of secrecy was nearly a total preoccupation with Hanford workers and their families. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) maintained an ominous presence in the workplace and the neighborhoods of Hanford workers. One worker commented that, “We know there are a lot of FBI men working in the areas. There have been cases of men talking or telling their wives more than they should. We all know when a guy starts getting careless. And it isn’t very long until he isn’t around any more.” To share concerns about Hanford’s operations means dismissal and ostracism [17, p. 4].
My dad never talked about his work to anyone. In fact, before my mother passed away of aggressive cancer in 1999, she insisted to me that my dad’s job at Hanford was merely to “produce power” through nuclear means. She reacted in disbelief when I explained to her that the primary purpose of Hanford’s reactors was production of plutonium, not power.
8. Sanger, S. L. 1995. Working on the bomb: An oral history of WWII Hanford. Portland, OR: Portland State University.
9. Chemical separation involves dissolving spent fuel rods and then isolating and concentrating the plutonium, uranium, and other radionuclides they contain.
10. When irradiated fuel rods from production reactors were immersed in an acid solution to dissolve the metal cladding, radiation was released into the atmosphere.
11. Aside from “normal” operations, Hanford conducted at least three experiments that released large amounts of radioiodine. The “Green Run” occurred December 2-3,
1949, releasing 7,800 curies of I-131.
12. Thomas, J. 1990. Hanford Education Action League. The human toll. Perspective
13. A curie is the amount of a radioactive species which produces 37 billion radioactive decays per second.
14. It would eventually be revealed that Hanford’s I-131 exposed large areas of eastern Washington State, Idaho, western Montana, northeastern Oregon, and traveled into parts of western Canada.
15. D’Antonio, M. 1993. Atomic harvest: Hanford and the lethal toll of America’s nuclear arsenal. New York: Crown.
16. A micro-curie is one millionth of one curie. A curie is the amount of a radioactive species which produces 37 billion radioactive decays per second.
17. Thomas, J. 1992. Hanford Education Action League. Atomic deception: Oh, what a tangled web! Perspective (10-11):3.