Downwind and Dying: The Hanford Nuclear Site Was Supposedly Safe. Now They Are Fighting the Experts for Their Story to Be Told
Many people believe nuclear power will be a necessary and integral part of an independent American energy strategy. Consumers demand power and industry needs power to function and produce and create jobs.
The nuclear industry has a long way to go before people will feel safe and before the industry embarks on building a national grid to satisfy our ever growing power needs.
What follows is the story of one town’s experience with a nuclear power facility. The Hanford nuclear site in Washington state is one of the nation’s oldest facilities. Two thirds of the most radioactive waste (by volume) can be found there and Hanford is acknowledged to be the single most contaminated nuclear site in the nation. Despite billions of dollars in remediation, the Hanford site won’t be clean for thousands of years. In the meantime those living in proximity to the site are subject to contaminated ground water and are exposed to a myriad of other health hazards.
The Hanford facility was built in the 1940′s. While it is true newer facilities are far safer, it is nevertheless disturbing to see how the industry has abandoned those around the facility.
Tom Bailie grew up on a dryland farm in Mesa, Washington, just downwind from the massive Hanford plant founded in 1943 to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project. Bailie often served as an informal spokesman for the ‘downwinders’, the people who believed they were poisoned by fission products that flowed from the plant on air currents, along underground aquifers, and down the Columbia River on the dry plains of eastern Washington. Bailie shows up in dozens of articles and almost every book about Hanford. Talking to him, it’s easy to see why. He has the gift of gab spiced with a knack for colorful sound bites. He also looks, dresses and drawls just like a farmer on the Western range should, which makes for good copy. Because it takes historians a long time to research a story, I got to know Bailie well. Over the years, we became friends.
The first time I met him, we climbed into the swather he used for cutting crops and rode up and down a field of alfalfa he was getting ready for export to Japan. He told me that the former CNN journalist Connie Chung had ridden in the same seat. I got the message that he was offering me a photo-op worthy of national TV. As he drove, he kept up a monologue.
‘When I was a kid in the 1950s, I used to love Buck Rogers, and one day I looked out the window to see men in space suits shoveling dirt from our front yard into little metal boxes. I was thrilled, but my mom panicked. She ran out and asked the scientists what was wrong. “Nothing, M’am,”’ Bailie cuffed his hand over his mouth to mimic a voice behind an assault mask, ‘“everything is just fine.”’ The scientists asked for the beaks and feet of the geese his father had shot, then they left.
‘I finally realised,’ Bailie announced on another day, ‘why me and my buddies are still going strong, and the goodie-two-shoes we went to school with are sick or dead.’
‘Because when their mothers told them to eat their vegetables and drink their milk, they did! Meanwhile, me and my friends snuck off to the store and bought Twinkies and Coke.’