Interview with Trisha Thompson Pritikin.
Author of "The Hanford Plaintiffs"
Trisha Pritikin’s The Hanford Plaintiffs was the winner of the General non-fiction category at the 2021 New York Book Festival. But it’s really a horror story about the abuse suffered by victims of radiation poisoning at the hands of the US government during its push to develop atomic weapons during World War II, with a particular locus at the Hanford reactor in Washington state.
In the book, we hear the oral histories of people who were affected by the radioactive leakage from the plant and the debilitating impact on their health. It’s equal parts astonishing and scary, and it’s a well-researched tale of government malfeasance when it comes to making things right for those victims.
Pritikin’s book is available through the University Press of Kansas or at Amazon.com. We asked her questions about the book’s impact and whether we should be concerned about other issues that are potentially being covered up.
Q: There is much written by others about the banality of evil. What are your thoughts on the government, based on the book? Are they malevolent, or is it a bureaucracy that is just CYA.
TRISHA PRITIKIN: Throughout the wartime Manhattan Project and decades of the Cold War era that followed, the Hanford nuclear weapons facility in southcentral Washington State secretly released over 800,000 curies of airborne I-131, a radioactive isotope of iodine, along with a vast range of other radionuclides, throughout much of the Pacific Northwest. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) did not inform people in communities downwind of Hanford that they were in harm’s way, within the path of undetectable radioactive fallout.
During the Manhattan Project and frenetic US Cold War nuclear weapons production and testing program that followed, the AEC knowingly sacrificed the health of civilians downwind and downriver of Hanford. Many people, exposed to radiation released from the Hanford facility during Manhattan Project and Cold War years, were later diagnosed with cancers, autoimmune disease, reproductive disorders, and other significant health issues likely caused by those exposures. It is not possible to definitively prove which of the downwinders’ diseases were caused by these exposures. However, based on epidemiologic studies of populations exposed to I-131 and other airborne radionuclides released from nuclear weapons tests and reactor accidents including the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it is more probable than not that thyroid cancer, thyroid disease, parathyroid disease, autoimmune diseases and a number of cancers related to airborne radiation and to the radionuclides dumped by Hanford operators directly into the Columbia River were the result of exposure downwind and downriver of Hanford.
It would have been feasible as well as humane for the AEC to introduce simple, cost-effective measures to protect the health of downwind and downriver communities, even if national security concerns prevented the government from publicly revealing that the Hanford site manufactured plutonium and released the radioactive byproducts of production to air and water offsite. Local radioactive milk and milk products could have
been confiscated and destroyed as they were following partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor on March 28, 1979 near Middletown, PA, when 18-21 curies of I-131 were released downwind. Local dairies could have been compensated for these losses of product. Non-radioactive milk and other dairy products from areas outside of Hanford’s fallout region could have been imported for consumption within the Hanford area, even if the reason for doing so was not publicly disclosed.
Non-radioactive iodine or iodized table salt, which were simple, cost-effective public health measures that would have protected the thyroid against the damage caused by ingestion and inhalation of I-131, could have been provided to Hanford’s downwind communities. In 1945, a secret Hanford memo recommended that the public be advised to use iodized salt or that only iodized salt be made available in area stores, and that Hanford workers be given a dose of nonradioactive iodine during their monthly medical examinations. These recommendations were rejected by the AEC over concern that these measures might provoke “undue alarm” amongst workers and members of the public.
Finally, if the AEC had informed downwind and downriver communities that they were in harm’s way, within the path of radiation released from nuclear weapons production and testing sites, federal assistance could have been provided to relocate families to safe areas outside fallout zones. Members of downwind communities, sharing the fear of most Americans at the time over potential Soviet nuclear attack against the United States, would have likely been willing to relocate, both for their own safety and out of a sense of patriotic duty.
Historians advise that the actions of government must be judged within the context of the politics and pressures of the times. This is not to say that the failure of the AEC to protect the health of civilian populations downwind and downriver of nuclear weapons production and testing sites should be excused in light of political pressures of wartime and the ensuing Cold War nuclear arms race. Instead, instances of government failure to introduce measures to protect public health must be evaluated individually. What specific protective measures were available and how easily could they have been introduced? If these measures had been introduced, would they have caused actual detriment to national security? If so, how did the level of potential detriment to national security weigh against the ethical and moral implications of failing to protect the health of families downwind of nuclear weapons production and testing sites?
Did the AEC’s failure to protect the public from Hanford’s radiation releases constitute malevolence on the part of the US government? My answer is yes. I believe that the AEC’s failure to protect the public satisfies the second definition of malevolent as described below.
Webster’s Dictionaryi defines “malevolent” as 1) having, showing, or arising from intense often vicious ill will, spite, or hatred; or 2) productive of harm or evil. The AEC’s failure to introduce even the simple measures I have discussed above in order to protect the health of Hanford downwind and downriver civilians was not the product of vicious ill
will, spite, or hatred. This failure, was, however, “productive of harm,” the second definition of malevolent.
The question further asks whether the AEC engaged in CYA behavior in its relentless efforts to amass a Cold War nuclear stockpile at all costs? I do not believe this was CYA behavior so much as the product of “consequences-be-damned” fast-forward momentum in an intense Cold War arms race against the former Soviet Union, a powerful adversary seen as capable of launching a devastating nuclear attack against our country at any time.
Q: Would the downwinders have been helped by the internet?
TP: In order to answer the question of whether public availability of the internet during wartime and Cold War Hanford operations would have helped the downwinders, two possible scenarios must be considered. The first scenario is that of an internet in which public access was unrestricted; and the second is that of an internet with tight government controls over what could be publicly shared. The level of control in the latter scenario would have been equivalent to the secrecy and compartmentalization in place during the Manhattan project and Cold War US nuclear weapons production and testing program.
In the first scenario, providing unrestricted public internet access, we can assume that technology allowing the public to detect airborne radiation would likely also have been developed and publicly available, as it is today. It is very doubtful, under these circumstances, that the Atomic Energy Commission could have released radiation throughout the Pacific Northwest and into the Columbia River without members of the public, using this technology, detecting these releases. This information, in turn, would have been widely disseminated via the internet. Public protest would likely then have resulted in congressional inquiry, and potentially, in a court-issued injunction against further radiation release from nuclear weapons production and testing facilities until the safety of these releases could be assessed.
If the internet had been available without restriction to the downwinders, it would have allowed these communities to widely share local health information through online maps tracking incidence of disease. A hand-drawn kitchen table map, created by Hanford area farmer Juanita Andrewjeski in the early 1980s, plotted the incidence of heart attacks in young men who worked the fields on area farms along with cancer diagnoses in members of communities across from Hanford. Such a map could have been shared online, making the public widely aware that something was amiss in the region around Hanford.
The internet has empowered the public in many ways. Online news accounts have documented increased incidence of cancer in people living around radioactively contaminated Cold Water Creek, MO along with accounts of health issues potentially related to contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan. The internet serves as a
powerful and cost-effective ally to grass-roots community groups trying to get the word out about patterns of disease observed in their communities. The internet also allows communities to locate and contact residents in order to watch for developing disease patterns that might be related to toxic exposure.
If the internet had been available during Manhattan Project and Cold War years with national security claimed by the AEC as justification for strict controls over what people could share, there is little chance that the downwinders would have benefitted unless they could have devised means to circumvent these governmental controls.
Q: What would have represented true justice to you for the various cases?
TP: The mass toxic tort litigation known as In re Hanford Nuclear Reservation Litigation (In re Hanford) initially involved around 5,000 personal injury downwinder plaintiffs. Toxic tort injuries are more complicated than injuries described by traditional tort scenarios. In a traditional tort injury, A might hit B, causing injury to B. In this case, causation is clear. In a toxic tort involving radiation injury, A might expose B to radiation. B doesn’t know he or she has been exposed, and doesn’t develop radiation-related cancer or other disease until several decades later, after passage of a latency period that can last for several decades. This makes proving causation in toxic tort cases very complicated. It is extremely difficult for a toxic tort plaintiff to prove that a specific exposure caused his or her specific disease, in part because other potential causes of the disease could have occurred during the extended latency period. As the result of the challenges of proving causation in toxic tort cases, many In re Hanford plaintiffs who now suffer from cancer or other disease were not able to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that radiation exposure caused their specific disease. As the result, a large number of Hanford downwinder plaintiffs did not receive monetary settlement, even though their cancer or other disease may well have been caused by exposure to Hanford’s radiation. Those plaintiffs who did receive monetary settlement often received meager sums that did not cover relevant medical expenses, let alone loss of earning potential due to disease-related disability, or pain and suffering.
This is not justice.
In The Hanford Plaintiffs, I describe my vision for government response to the plight of health-damaged civilian downwinders, a response that I feel is both equitable and compassionate. I propose that a national compensation program be created, treating civilians who lived downwind or downriver of US nuclear weapons production and testing sites during periods of release of radioactive fallout from those sites in the same way nuclear workers are treated under federal law (EEOICPA, or Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act). Under my proposed plan, if downwind or downriver civilians:
a) develop any of the cancers or other diseases recognized as radiogenic (radiation-caused) for nuclear workers under the EEOICPA,
b) and they lived for at least a minimum defined period of time downwind or downriver of a designated nuclear weapons production or testing site during documented offsite radiation release,
c) they should receive compensation for their cancer or other disease at levels comparable to the compensation received by nuclear workers.
Under the EEOICPA, Hanford nuclear workers and workers at many other nuclear sites are considered to be part of “special exposure cohorts” (SECs). As members of SECs, these workers are not required to provide documentation of their specific radiation exposure dose in order to prove that their individual cancer or other disease was caused by their exposure to radiation. These nuclear workers are, in other words, given the benefit of the doubt- the assumption is made that the disease in that worker was caused by radiation exposure. I believe that civilian downwinders should also be considered to be part of an SEC. The government intentionally failed to monitor civilians’ radiation exposure levels. It is therefore wholly unjust as well as virtually impossible to document the exposure dose they received. Furthermore, while nuclear workers signed on for work within the nuclear weapons complex, work that they knew posed certain exposure health risks (although they may not have known the full extent of the risks involved), civilian downwinders, many of whom were exposed during infancy and childhood, did not voluntarily assume the risk of radiation exposure.
Finally, it would also be highly appropriate for the US government to issue a long-overdue official apology to US downwinders and to civilians exposed to fallout from atomic tests conducted by the US within the Pacific Proving Grounds for cancers and other radiogenic diseases that are the result of these exposures.
Q: Is there still danger in the Hanford area? Radiation lasts a long time.
TP: It is not within my expertise to assess the current hazards posed by the Hanford site. NGO watchdog groups that track these issues can provide current information on these questions as well as on the clean-up efforts, successes as well as the failures, underway at Hanford.
Q: How has writing this book affected you? Do you feel the same way about doctors and/or the government?
TP: People often ask me how I felt about meeting people with the cancers and other serious health issues suffered by the individuals whose stories appear in the book. My reply is always the same. The people I interviewed have many of the same health issues as my own family. In fact, my family’s story is included in The Hanford Plaintiffs, as our health was significantly impacted by Hanford operations, and we were, as the result, also personal injury plaintiffs in the litigation.
You ask how writing the book has affected me. I can say that I do not feel depressed as the result of interviewing so many people injured by Hanford’s radiation releases. Rather, I feel empowered. My goal was to join our stories together as one voice, as our stories together are far more powerful than they are individually. Seeing our stories together now within this published book, I know that my goal has been realized. I also believe that the only way for the public to understand the human toll of Hanford operations is to hear from the people who lived downwind and downriver and who now suffer with a range of cancers and other serious diseases identified as radiation-caused. Because these are the stories of everyday people, readers can easily identify with them and with their suffering.
This question asks whether I feel the same way about doctors and/or the government. While I’m not sure exactly what this question is asking, I can say that I do trust my own doctors, and that they are respectful of my work on Hanford and have been very helpful to me in my efforts to cope with the difficult challenges of diseases, including autoimmune thyroiditis and hypoparathyroidism, resulting from my years of exposure during childhood to radioactive iodine. As to whether I trust the government, that is a totally different question. In question #1, above, I address the question of whether the Atomic Energy Commission was malevolent in its actions towards the downwinders.
Q: You focused on Hanford, and at the end of the book, mentioned the other areas that could have DoE radiation problems. How are those being addressed, if at all?
TP: In The Hanford Plaintiffs, I wanted to make readers aware of the larger population of civilians who lived downwind of US nuclear weapons production and testing sites, or who were exposed from their work in the uranium industry. Many of these people suffer today from the same cancers and other radiogenic (radiation-caused) diseases as the Hanford downwinders.
The response by the US government, responsible for placing these civilians in harm’s way, has been inefficient, inequitable and piecemeal. What I mean by this is that while certain subgroups of downwinders have received compensation and health care, others have not. For instance, certain groups of health damaged Nevada Test Site (NTS) downwinders who lived in counties close-in to the NTS are currently eligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), while others, in geographic areas that have been found to have even higher fallout deposition from above-ground tests conducted at the NTS, are not eligible for compensation or care under RECA. Congressional representatives with constituents in NTS fallout areas outside of RECA eligibility, including downwind of the Trinity Test Site, have repeatedly introduced failed bills in Congress to expand RECA to their constituents.
Manhattan Project and Cold War production sites around the US differ as to the amount of radiation released offsite. They also differ as to the public health response by the US government to any health issues reported by people who lived downwind of those sites.
There are also sites where radioactive waste from Manhattan Project and Cold War weapons production is stored, some of which has leaked offsite or into nearby streams. People who live near these storage facilities for a minimum defined period of time, and who develop radiogenic cancers and other diseases following documented leaks of radioactive substances from these sites, should be included within any federal compensation program, as discussed in my response to question #3, above.
Q: How easy or difficult was it to get people to talk about their cases?
TP: The downwinders whose stories are included in The Hanford Plaintiffs responded to a letter I sent out in late 2015, as the final cases were settled, inviting former In re Hanford plaintiffs to participate in this project. About a third of the former plaintiffs I invited decided to be interviewed. Several later decided not to participate. Two of those who did participate decided not to use their full names.
I have worked for over thirty years on Hanford issues, and during that time, I have met many people who are afraid to speak publicly about health issues that they feel may have resulted from their exposure to Hanford’s radiation. The reasons for this vary. Before Obamacare provided protections against denial of health insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions, many people worried that, had their insurance carriers learned of their earlier radiation exposure, any disease that might have resulted from that exposure would be excluded from coverage as a pre-existing condition. This kept many people from speaking publicly about their exposures and health issues.
The stigma of radiation exposure must also be acknowledged as it often causes people to hesitate to talk about their exposure. While not as major an issue in the US as it is in Japan,
There is still stigma attached to radiation exposure in US culture, in that people perceive exposure as potentially resulting in genetic mutations in the offspring of those exposed. It is not often possible to prove one way or the other whether a birth defect or disease in a child was caused by the parent’s exposure to radiation. From what I have learned from people who work with Japanese Hibakusha (survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and with people downwind of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor accident in 2011, the stigma against both the Hibakusha and Fukushima downwinders in Japan is much more severe than anything experienced by radiation survivors in the U.S.
Q: How aware of this history are the medical professionals in the Hanford area?
TP: I currently live in northern California. I have been surprised over the years by the level of awareness of Hanford’s radiation releases by physicians and other medical professionals in the SF Bay Area. All of the health care providers who currently treat my health issues relating to childhood exposure downwind of Hanford know about the facility and my exposures. Many have treated other Hanford downwinders, as quite a number of Hanford downwinders now live in California and other parts of the country.
In the Hanford area, and across the Pacific Northwest, the level of awareness of Hanford and Hanford’s radiation releases is very high, particularly for endocrinologists who treat patients with thyroid and parathyroid disease (the primary diseases seen in many Hanford downwinders) and for oncologists, who often treat downwinders with thyroid cancer and other cancers.
I have found that many of the medical professionals I have met are aghast at the levels of radiation covertly released onto the public from Hanford. I am thinking that part of this high level of sympathy comes from the fact that these health professionals end up treating some very aggressive cancers in the downwinders, and they see the extreme levels of suffering we endure.
I do recall that, in 1986, just after the Department of Energy declassified early Hanford operating records revealing Hanford’s decades of secret radiation releases throughout the Pacific Northwest, it took a few years before physicians and other medical professionals were able to understand the broad scope of endocrine cancers, disorders, and other diseases they were seeing in the downwinders. I am thinking that the severity and extent of the injuries to the people of the Pacific Northwest was hard to fathom. This is still the case for those who have just learned of the injustices committed against the downwinders.
Q: These problems were caused by radiation and were covered up. Did writing this book cause you to wonder about other things going on that may also be deleterious to health that are either not being talked about or covered up? We hear about 5G, chemtrails, etc. Without getting too paranoid, should we be concerned?
TP: I learned almost forty years after my childhood exposure that the government had placed my family in danger as our country jumped headlong into the new science and technology of nuclear weapons, without assessing the health implications to the public of producing and testing these weapons.
I would advise people to be concerned over any new technology that might potentially pose a health hazard. It is impossible to know whether new electrical or digital products or other technology is safe until that product or technology has been used for some time and either reveals a track record of safety or, in the alternative, health issues begin to be associated its use.
Due to the harm suffered by my family and many like us when the new science of the atom and atomic weapons was ushered in to American life, I now hesitate when new technologies are introduced and touted as safe, better, and what everyone needs and wants. The latest example of this is 5G. If one watches the ads on TV, one thinks 5G will make things faster, better, and that 5G is something we all need. Yet, I am currently reading a book by a physician who points out the negative health implications of 5G networks. Our home has only ethernet (wired) connections rather than WiFi in order to try to minimize exposure to EMFs, every cell phone we use has a radiation deflection
cover, I insist upon the use of earphones on cell phone calls, with an EMF deflecting bead on the headset cord, and I take quite an array of protective antioxidants daily. My friends who are not downwinders do not take anywhere near as many health protective actions as I do. I am thinking that what I have experienced as a health-damaged downwinder has resulted in a combination of hyper-vigilance and skepticism over the safety of new technologies, along with possibly a touch of mild PTSD for having been involuntarily exposed to and damaged from a barrage of undetectable radiation as a child.
Q: Obviously, the legal system is long and slow, and justice is sometimes delayed or denied. What, short of revolution, can be done to make the system work better?
TP: In answer to this question, please see my detailed discussion, describing my proposal for a comprehensive, more equitable national compensation program for health damaged civilian downwinders, in the answer to question #3, “What would have represented true justice to you for the various cases?” above.
You can check the author's website here.