Hanford and the middle ground between “knowing” and “not knowing”

By Daniele Macuglia | October 31, 2013

Scholarly work on the public understanding of the Cold War nuclear industry has frequently focused on media coverage related to the secrecy of US nuclear sites. This method of analysis holds true particularly for the Hanford Site, a plutonium production complex located in Washington State that polluted a large portion of the Pacific Northwest with radioactive waste for more than four decades. During Hanford’s operational history—from 1943 to 1987—high-level radioactive waste produced at the site exposed thousands of people living and working in the area to the risk of cancer and caused extensive environmental damage, making Hanford the most contaminated place in the United States to this day. Although the US government always maintained a top-secret classification for Hanford’s activities and operations, an analysis of newspaper reports from that era reveals that the general public in the surrounding area developed some awareness of what was going on at the site.

Apprehensive about the Nazi expansion and, later, the Soviet Union’s military and nuclear weapon programs, the US government did not directly warn the public about the contamination, “which was measured but kept secret in classified documents, most declassified for the first time in 1986,” according to a 1988 report in the Bulletin. However, as historian J. Samuel Walker also discussed in his 2009 book The Road to Yucca Mountain, many stories circulated in public about accidents and waste issues at the site, and most US nuclear facilities at that time operated in an intermediate state between secrecy and publicity. Yet precisely how this ambiguous status was attained, and what it actually meant at different times during the Cold War, remains unclear. That is, what sorts of things were known? What sorts were ignored? And why did certain “secrets” suddenly, and dramatically, penetrate the public’s awareness, even though the local population always kind of knew them?

A good starting point for answering these questions is in American national and local newspapers from that period. Before the end of World War II, news about Hanford was completely censored, and newspaper editors were explicitly told to cooperate—not to speculate or ask questions about the nuclear facility. After the end of the war, however, newspaper articles began describing minor, but still very troubling, contamination events taking place in the area. During the 1960s and 1970s, for example, The Seattle Times reported leaks of radioactive material, variations in the Columbia Basin animal and plant populations, wildlife absorption of radioactivity, increases in the Columbia River’s temperature, accidents involving Hanford employees, and the presence of chemical waste resulting from the production of plutonium. Other articles shockingly revealed that the Columbia was considered to be the most radioactive river in the world; that a total of 530,000 gallons of radioactive and toxic liquids had leaked at Hanford from 1958 to 1973; and that a nuclear worker—Harold McCluskey, who became known as the “Atomic Man”—made medical history when he survived after absorbing 500 times the maximum allowable lifetime dose of radioactivity in a 1976 chemical explosion at the site. These examples, of course, do not compare with the overall dramatic contamination that we now know to have taken place at the site, but were environmental mishaps that people and public agencies could easily detect by being attentive to what was going on around them, by reading the newspapers, and without using particularly sophisticated equipment.

A careful perusal of hundreds of newspaper articles shows that Hanford was not as silent as one might at first imagine. Rather, there were sporadic, incomplete reports that resulted in a sort of middle ground between “knowing” and “not knowing” about the nuclear contamination at Hanford. People knew that something was not totally right with safety conditions at the site, but they did not have all of the tools necessary to develop a clear understanding of the situation. On a scale ranging from total secrecy to complete openness, the Hanford case is located somewhere between these two extremes, and specific “drivers of secrecy” have shaped the history of this nuclear facility. Among them are military, political, and economic agents that acted in self-interested ways, moving under the assumption that societal awareness would probably mean interference, fear, and protests. However, these drivers of secrecy did not prevent locals from sensing what was happening around them.

In a 1991 interview published by historian Penina Migdal Glazer and sociologist Myron Peretz Glazer in The Environmental Crusaders: Confronting Disaster and Mobilizing Community, Tom Bailie—a farmer who grew up near Hanford at the peak of its Cold War emissions and who developed thyroid diseases and sterility—admitted that “seeing all the sick people and the handicapped children around us, I guess deep inside I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t have anything else to compare it with.” This quote accurately represents the state of affairs for people living near Hanford, and tracing instances of this ambiguity can shed light on the non-absoluteness of secrecy that characterizes the history of some major US nuclear facilities.

In a world in which sensitive information is often withheld from the public in attempts to protect law enforcement and national security, the Hanford case still provides fresh insight into the question of whether people should always have the right to access information about possible hazards and safety protocols in their communities—even during wartime emergencies. In an open society, however, people should always be informed about the potential threats to their health, yet this has not always been the case in reality, even in the most democratic of societies.

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