SECRET KEEPING IN AMERICA
f there’s one book that has changed the way I look at my country and my personal history, it’s Michele Stenehjem Gerber’s book, On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site (Bison, 2002 2nd Edition). I discovered it a year ago in a museum gift shop in my hometown of Richland, Washington. I’ve read it cover to cover three times, and go back to some parts over and over again. In fact,
Gerber’s book has become a trigger for a number of new poems I’m writing—poems that revisit my childhood growing up next to and working inside the Hanford Nuclear Reservation where plutonium was produced for the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs, and where plutonium was the mainstay of the local economy well into the 1980s. (The business of Hanford these days is environmental remediation—the Department of Energy calls Hanford "the world’s largest environmental cleanup.")
Gerber is a historian. Her book "was made possible by the
declassification in the 1980s of tens of thousands of government
documents relating to the construction, operation, and maintenance of
the site." It is a model of even-handedness, and seems bent not on any
political or environmental agenda, but instead on providing necessary
information that was so long withheld.
Some of the news, especially for those of us who grew up with the
industry, is difficult to hear. In the following (slightly abridged)
excerpt, Gerber uncovers an astounding and damaging correlation between
classified (secret) scientific discoveries regarding public radiation
exposure and the paternalistic, squeaky-clean guidelines for "healthy
living" that the government issued through the local media.
WERE SOME STATEMENTS VEILED WARNINGS?
By mid-1947, Hanford researchers had discovered that airborne
radioactive contamination deposited readily on sagebrush. Surprisingly,
atmospherically transported gases and particulates could be detected on
this hardy plant that was so prevalent in eastern Washington. That
summer, Richland’s Public Health Section issued warnings to villagers
to remove sagebrush plants from their yards. The spindly desert weed,
GE officials explained, "aggravates allergies [and]…often harbors
ticks" that could spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Soon afterwards,
Hanford researchers discovered that the Russian thistle plant could
present an "aerial radiation hazard" because of its pronounced ability
to translocate subsurface contamination up through its bracts and
stems. In Richland, residents were asked to destroy these plants to
decrease the pollen level.
During the time of the insect-control campaigns in the late 1940s,
broadbased research at the Hanford complex was beginning to show that
many invertebrates have the ability to concentrate radioactivity in
their tissues at levels vastly higher than the levels originally
discharged into the environment.… With radioiodine being released
through the 200 Areas stacks, falling on forage, and raising the
radioactivity in animal thyroids, was it a coincidence that no chickens
or livestock of any kind were allowed in government-owned Richland? Or
that no land within the town limits was available for pasture?
During the same years that scientists in the new fields of
environmental monitoring and health physics were struggling to
understand the multi-faceted aspects of radionuclide transfer through
the ecosystem and to establish safe tolerance limits, extensive
milk-testing and water-testing programs were carried out by health
officials in Richland. The milk-testing program was explained to
village residents as existing merely to check the milk for "bacterial
count and butterfat content…seeing that the milk [came] from tuberculin
tested cows…[and] that the process [of pasteurization] had been
properly carried out. Richland’s milk supply was brought in from
Ellensburg and Yakima areas. GE officials repeatedly cautioned
Richlanders not to drink "poor quality" milk and water from rural
regions surrounding the village.
Gerber, as far as I know, was the first to uncover these and other correspondences in her research 40+ years after the fact.
Before the US dropped the first bomb on Japan in August 1945, only a
handful of the 50,000+ workers at The Hanford Engineer Works in a
remote desert in Washington State had any idea that the "product" they
were building was plutonium. The need for secrecy was obvious. By mid
August, the cat was out of the bag, but the pattern of secrecy and
veiled or unspoken warnings from the government continued into the
1960s at least. The nearby communities of Richland, Kennewick, and
Pasco, not to mention the "downwind" inhabitants that extended south,
east, and along the Columbia, all relied on the government to protect
them. Certainly in Richland we scoffed at "outsiders" who suggested we
glowed in the dark. We knew we were safe. We were Hanford. Our neighbors and friends and families would never foul their own nests.
Gerber’s measured, clear, incredibly thorough and readable book
reveals a drama of Shakespearean dimensions. It’s a cautionary tale
about government secrets, about our own government’s reluctance to
reveal its secrets, even as it endangered its citizens.
*The map is from The Tennessean.com. It can be found at: http://www.tennessean.com/special/oakridge/part3/stories/hanford.shtml