The Seattle Times Web Edition: 50 Years from Trinity


   SEATTLE'S JUDITH JURJI says she thinks the atomic bomb made her sterile.
   Specifically, Jurji says she thinks radioactive emissions from Hanford's plutonium-producing nuclear reactors fell onto Eastern Washington pastures, were consumed by dairy cows and then concentrated in milk.
   Jurji's parents grew up on dairy farms before her father went to work at Hanford nuclear reservation as a construction supervisor. They drank a lot of milk. And six of 10 family members have had thyroid disease.
   The thyroid tends to concentrate iodine-131 an isotope that can cause many problems, including, in Jurji's case, the inability to have children.
   "I feel like my life has been very, very damaged," said Jurji, 50, who directs the Hanford Downwinder's Coalition. "I feel particularly betrayed because my dad worked there and we were told it was so safe."
   Her belief that she was harmed by radioactive fallout is one shared by 3,000 members of the Downwinder's Coalition, mostly Eastern Washington residents who lived downwind from Hanford's plutonium plants that emitted radioactive gases into the atmosphere, primarily in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Thousands more live in states such as Utah and Nevada, downwind from atmospheric bomb tests.
   Scientists initially minimized the health threat of fallout and pollution. While medical boards have steadily reduced recommended low-level radiation exposure levels, there is no consensus today on the consequences of Cold War-era fallout.
   The Committee of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War has estimated atmospheric fallout from weapons testing has caused 430,000 additional cancer deaths.
   At the other extreme, bomb physicist Edward Teller was asked how many deaths can be attributed to fallout and replied, "Nobody," arguing that concentrations were not severe enough to affect health. Teller is skeptical that nuclear waste is a serious health threat. A third of the Department of Energy's budget goes to cleanup and, "probably the number (of lives) saved thereby is zero."
   Trying to straddle these extremes are policymakers. In the clearest admission of responsibility to date, Congress has passed legislation allowing people who lived downwind from the atmospheric testing in Nevada from 1951 to 1963 to file for up to $50,000 compensation from the federal government if they develop cancer.
   The admission of responsibility may be more important to claimants than the money, which can be rapidly consumed by medical treatment.
   "I just want everything out in the open," Jurji said of her aims. "We want the government to acknowledge what was done. We want scientists to admit they don't know everything, and that they need to do research on chronic low-radiation exposure."
   Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center started a study in 1988 trying to determine whether there was an increase in thyroid disease downwind from Hanford, and, if so, whether it can be linked to the pattern of emissions. But tracing the path of fallout primarily between 1945 and 1951 and comparing it to contemporary health problems is difficult. The study is not expected to be completed until 1997.
   Hanford downwinders are preparing a civil lawsuit against site contractors to seek compensation, which lawyers have tentatively suggested could be in the range of $500 million to $1 billion. The federal government has sovereign immunity from being sued but would likely cover payments if a judgment is made against its contractors.
   If the Fred Hutchinson study supports the fears, victims will also likely press Congress for health screening or other medical aid.
   The downwinders' worries are part of the bomb-shadowed legacy of nuclear energy.
   "If we had not used nuclear energy for weapons," said Department of Energy geologist John Peck, "it would be more widely used for peaceful purposes right now. But using it as a bomb first developed a detrimental psychology."
   Military use applied a shroud of sometimes unnecessary secrecy and created a climate of public distrust that Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has been trying to lift the past two years.
   She is fighting a history in which the federal government approved medical experiments with radioactive isotopes on prisoners, the mentally disabled or others who were arguably not well-informed enough to give meaningful consent. Inmates at Walla Walla State Penitentiary, for example, were subjected to radiation of their testicles by Seattle-based researchers.
   The I-131 air emissions are only a tiny fraction of what Hanford released into the soil and Columbia River. The nuclear reservation dumped an estimated half billion curies of radiation into the air, water and earth and spilled 440 billion gallons of chemical and radioactive liquid waste into the desert soil. Trenches at Hanford are still receiving low-level radioactive waste and radioactive reactors from decommissioned submarines. The result is a cleanup problem that could cost more than $100 billion and last another 50 years.
   Scientists warned of the dangers of nuclear-defense-waste practices as early as 1948 and wrote a waste plan for Hanford as early as 1958. Eventually, the file for Hanford waste plans grew 4 feet thick, but the plans were never implemented. Production seemed more important.
   "Always the budget would be promised, and deferred," said Michele Gerber, a Hanford historian. "The nation was pushing the mission at us. Hanford never once asked for more weapons work. In the grand tradition of the frontier, they sent the dirty jobs out West."
   The haste of one generation has become the debt of a future one.

Other related articles

[Trinity stories | Deeper into things | Interactive activities | Internet links | Seattle Times | Up a level]

Copyright, 1995, Seattle Times Company