Culture of Denial
by Rachel Beckman
In an age of investigative journalism, crime solving television, and eye-opening documentaries, it seems that 21st century America puts justice at the top of its to-do list. The recent arrival of Wikileaks has made public hundreds of thousands of American government documents, some with incriminating results. These leaks have opened up a widespread public forum on governmental conspiracies, scandals, and sometimes out and out criminal behavior. When debating these issues, many Americans choose to believe that the United States government is inherently good for various reasons, personal and political. And when governmental scandal hits home, it is easy to trust that safety and morality is being upheld by your government. The alternative is to admit that the government did not uphold these standards, and sometimes blatantly ignored or covered up inadequacies in safety and morality. In most of these events of scandal there is an equal pull towards the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ role of government, but there are extreme exceptions. In the case of the Hanford nuclear site, both the history of the secretive creation of the atomic bomb and the releasing of radioactivity are controversial issues that the citizens of Richland and the surrounding areas overwhelmingly trust in the government despite numerous condemning accusations of breaches in morality and safety that are believed to be true by most other citizens of Washington state.
The phenomenon surrounding the pro-Hanford citizens of Richland is an exceptional one for many reasons. When the Hanford radiation scandal came to a peak in the 1980s with the release of hundreds of classified documents, the overwhelming and sometimes violent backlash by Richland residents came as a surprise to others across the state and nation advocating for compensation and clean up of dangerous radioactive waste. Tom Bailie, a native of the greater Richland area, spoke to the press about his family and farm’s possible health issues relating to exposure to radioactive waste from Hanford.
…Bailie revealed that his father and four uncles had all had intestinal tumors. His grandfather…had died of liver cancer. His grandmother had died of cancer of the colon. His sisters suffered from thyroid problems. His mother and just about every other woman he knew had suffered miscarriages. Some, including a close cousin, has lost as many as six fetuses.
Almost instantly after his statements were released, Bailie was shunned and hated by the community he was once a part of.
An officer of the bank with which he and his family had done business with for years advised Bailie to stop granting so many interviews… “This is your only warning,” Bailie recalled the bank officer saying. “Go home and shut up about Hanford.” He didn’t take this advice, and, a few months later, received a notice requesting that all of his loans be paid in full immediately.
The interview that opened the floodgates for Bailie’s criticism was with Karen Dorn Steele, a newly appointed investigative journalist for one of the larger local papers, the Spokesman-Review. She had begun her work with a hunch that radioactivity from Hanford had a larger impact on the environment and the citizens than what many (including those citizens) were willing to admit. Steele’s series of articles about Hanford explained that Hanford had been polluting the surrounding area for more than forty years, and that it was time for the government to accept its mistakes, compensate the families that had suffered from the radiation effects (either with their own health or the health of their crops and farm animals), and begin a large-scale clean up immediately. If so many families had been affected by radiation as Steele and even Bailie suggest, why was the community so adamant on denying it?
In this essay, I suggest that there are four outstanding reasons for the community of Richland and surrounding areas to dismiss Hanford criticisms over radiation mishaps. The first is that of livelihood, as both the jobs at Hanford and crops were at risk. The second reason for denial is the legacy and patriotism that Hanford embodies for the Richland and surrounding areas. The third is that the government and Hanford officials constantly reminded both the public and their workers of the assured safety of Hanford. The fourth reason both contradicts and supports the third. The term ‘Hanfordization’ embodies the lack of obvious safety procedures and documentation that almost all of the workers at Hanford have surrendered to. Although this phenomenon of Hanford denial was not apparent to many other people across the state and nation until the 1980s, these reasons that support denial are not solely contained to the experiences in the 1980s surrounding radiation, but instead stem from the very founding of Hanford in 1943. These four points have been shaped by the first wave of Hanford workers, government, and officials that not only advocated for Hanford but felt that they were a part of something great. The points also compliment and influence each other. To understand how these cultural aspects were shaped, one must look back to the creation of Hanford and its community.
In February of 1943, Richland was chosen by government officials and contractors DuPont Company to be the site that would soon become the largest plutonium plant in the United States. From the moment of inception, people living in Richland and the area that Hanford would soon occupy were told they had only a few weeks to clear out of their homes. Richland was the deemed by the United States government as a settlement area for Hanford workers alone, save for a few merchants. By setting up Richland as an exclusive city, Richland was not only transformed into a military base-like town run by the government; but was then also a breeding ground for the hegemonic ideals surrounding Hanford. This hegemony was perpetuated through the town by the simple fact that if one was to lose their job at Hanford they could no longer reside in Richland. But thousands of workers flocked to Hanford quickly in search of high wages, high adventure, and for the chance to work on a project that would help their fellow Americans fighting Germany and Japan abroad; even if only 1/5 of the total amount of workers knew Hanford’s end product. Only after the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did Hanford employees finally realize the end product of their work.
Even though World War II was over, Hanford stayed in production during the Cold War, adding to America’s fast-growing nuclear arsenal in order to keep up with pressures from the U.S.S.R. But throughout the next couple decades, the need for Hanford plutonium waxed and waned. Workers came and went, and with the acknowledgement of Richland as an incorporated town in 1958, so did civilians. Many of the original workers from either World War II era or shortly after stayed in Richland. By doing so, new workers at Hanford could easily run into ‘old timers’ and learn of the early Hanford days. But In the early 1980s, President Nixon’s call for another nuclear build-up struck chords with many peace and anti-nuclear activists. Investigations into the atomic bomb and its downfalls had a new, more urgent purpose.
Speculations about the effects of Hanford on the environment and surrounding communities before the 1980s were mostly constricted to individuals who did not, for any of the four reasons, speak out. But in 1986, the hundreds of documents that were declassified by the Department of Energy painted a much different story of Hanford’s relationship with radioactivity. One of those documents described a government sponsored investigation in 1964 by Dr. Thomas Mancuso that focused on Hanford workers with cancer, but funding was dropped and Mancuso attacked when a correlation was found between the workers exposed to radiation and their high amounts of bone marrow and pancreatic cancers. Other documents revealed a top-secret radiation exposure experiment conducted in December of 1949 dubbed the ‘Green Run’. Radioactive gases, iodine 131, green uranium, and xenon 133 were purposefully released into the environment by the United States government for reasons that have been hotly debated. Whatever the reason for the experiment, none of the civilians in the surrounding areas were notified of the radiation. Table 2 in the Green Run document shows that radiation levels of extreme proportions were found as far north as Spokane and as far south as the California-Oregon border. “There was also ample evidence that dairy cows were grazing the downwind area during the experiment, and as Hanford documents suggested, the cows and every other living thing in the region received a radiation dose eighty times official limits”. These two examples were only a few of hundreds of incriminating reports on the blatant disregard of the safety of workers of Hanford and civilians in the surrounding areas. This both began and fueled the intense debate over whether or not people living in surrounding areas of Hanford, termed ‘downwinders’, suffered immense health problems due to radiation.
While the entire state of Washington and the nation were shocked and horrified at these reports, the residents of Richland and closely surrounding areas remained indignant. As more and more journalists poured into Richland and downwind areas, citizens became increasingly vocal about where there loyalty stood when it came to the safety of Hanford. This statement by journalist Larry Shook sums up the attitude of many, if not most, of the pro-Hanford citizens and workers.
“When they said plutonium had not been released, I asked them to prove it,” he remembered. “They were stunned by this, hurt actually. They said, ‘Larry, why don’t you wish to believe us?’ I said, ‘It doesn’t have anything to do with what I wish. This is about science. Numbers. You can’t just believe what someone says.’ This is when they got very excited. One of the women was really upset. She told me, ‘I have children and grandchildren living near here. Do you think I would do anything to hurt them?’”
The reasons for these intense displays of denial of the potential health hazards of Hanford are no doubt as cultural as they are political. The most pressing and obvious of the four reasons for the dismissal of radiation claims is that of the threat against the people of Richland (and other downwinders’) livelihood. On the surface of the radiation issue, it is easy to conclude that by accepting the health and environmental hazards surrounding Hanford radiation as truth the entire agriculture industry in the area would also have to accept the possibility that their crops are also radioactive. This is a frightening proposition, but the cultural stigmas of the Hanford and Richland area suggest that there are deeper roots in the history of speaking out against Hanford and losing your job at Hanford, and therefore leaving Richland. To understand how these issues became so important in the culture of Richland and the surrounding areas one has to look back into the culture that literally began with the decision to build Hanford.
Secrets and denial were present in Richland and Hanford from the moment the site was chosen. New workers were took oaths contracting them to never speak about what they did on the job to anyone, and their positions depended on it. Security branches and operations were alive and well at Hanford, and they had eyes and ears everywhere. A whisper at a bar, nosy housewives, loose lipped supervisors; nothing went unnoticed. Vincent Whitehead, a counter-intelligence agent at Hanford, recalls one of these events. “One story they picked up was that we were making rockets, anti-personnel rockets. They told me who had said it. I told my office this person was starting rumors and they took care of it. They guy was young, and unmarried, and he got drafted real quick”. Once agents like Whitehead learned of a breach in security (rumors included) it wasn’t long before that person and their family were gone from Hanford, or from their home in Richland. Another Hanford worker, Betsy Stuart, tells her story of espionage so close to home.
Her husband was a mechanic of some kind. She asked me, “What does your husband do?” I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.” She said, “You don’t know what your husband does?” She talked to her other neighbor, and she said something she shouldn’t have, and she disappeared overnight. Believe me, when we got together we didn’t talk about what we were doing. You had this constant “somebody is listening” business.
By deporting these ‘criminals’ from the community as quickly as possible, the beginnings of rumors surrounding the product of Hanford were nipped in the bud. To top off the secrecy about these counter-intelligence deportations, there has been no declassified list of the people deported from the area nor have there been studies into their lives, what they exactly said, and what happened to them after being expelled from Hanford. Even today, the stigma surrounding these deported people is a mixture of anti-patriotism, stupidity, and that the number of people with this issue is very small. When I asked about the aspect of this history at the Hanford museum in Richland, it seemed that this was an issue that had never been brought to their attention as being an issue before. After explaining that I could understand why people wondered, some too loudly, about the end result of Hanford, I asked a woman in her late seventies, “Wouldn’t you have wondered too?” She countered quickly, “But wouldn’t I want a job?” That small statement is a window into the feelings of generations of workers whose lives depended on being employed at Hanford.
With the engrained cultural notion that out of Hanford stems all jobs in Richland, the accusations of radioactivity doubly threatened the prosperity of the region. Not only did thousands of workers rely on the Hanford plant for a job, but if the hype over radioactivity and downwinders was true, the farmers of Richland and surrounding areas would have to admit that their crops and livestock had been exposed to radioactivity as well. The Columbia Basin is a prosperous area, with the ability to easily grow apples, grapes, and wheat, to name a few. The main export of the area is wheat, which is shipped to Japan and made into noodles. Separate from Hanford, the economy of the area is invested in agriculture, so there is good reason to deny that their crops have been exposed to radiation. But not everyone in the Richland area has denied the possibility of their crops and livestock being exposed at one time or another to extreme doses of radiation. One of the unifying experiences that made some farmers believe in radiation poisoning from Hanford was the overwhelming amount of deformed or still born sheep born in 1961. Over the course of the year, sheep were born without eyes, mouths, organs, and some with rigid bones. Hanford denies that radiation was the cause of the sheep deaths.
Hanford documents show the plants routinely released between four and 11 curies of Iodine 131 every day in the late 1950s…Bustad said Hanford’s off-site releases could not have killed Allison’s sheep. In his Hanford experiments, sheep would have to be fed “thousands and thousands” of rems of radiation…However, a 1977 report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said that malformations in animals may be induced by an exposure of less than five rems of radiation.
Although many farmers wondered the cause, and some even speculated it stemmed from Hanford, none of the farmers interviewed explicitly pinned the blame on Hanford. The area’s cultural notion of livelihood depending on Hanford did not waver when they saw these reports or Steele’s article.
The second reason for the community of Hanford and Richland to refute the radiation scandal is that of legacy. Throughout the decades since Hanford began in 1943, hundreds of thousands of workers have passed through. After the generation of World War II workers retired, the families that stayed in Richland found their sons and daughters working in the same plant of their parents. Hanford was the cornerstone of existence in Richland for almost 15 years. By blaming Hanford for radioactive waste, contamination of the environment, and potential life-threatening health hazards, you were not only blaming the officials of Hanford but the regular people that worked there too.
An important aspect of the legacy notion is the issue of patriotism. Hanford was built during a time of national (and arguably worldly) need. Leon Overstreet, a pipefitter, remembers a speech given by Lt. Col. Franklin T. Matthias (from the Army Corps of Engineers, officer-in-charge at Hanford) in the spring of 1944,
He did say that it was impossible to tell us what we were doing because the enemy would like to know. We were not allowed, he said, to discuss it with each other, just like our foreman had told us. But he said I can tell you this much, that it’s important and the enemy, Germany, is attempting to do the same thing we are, to build a plant like this. And whoever gets there first will win the war.
Because of the patriotic premise that Hanford was built upon, and continued throughout the Cold War, an attack on Hanford was seen as an attack on America. Right after the bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, people in the Hanford area immediately viewed the atomic bomb as a sign of peace, something to be proud of. “When the kids reached high school age they attended an institution, Columbia High, whose athletic teams- called The Bombers- wore jerseys and helmets proudly displaying an exploding mushroom cloud…labeled by the principal ‘a sign of peace’…” Workers themselves felt that working at Hanford was their or their parent’s patriotic duty, and were dismissive to the fact that they could have been a part of something terrible; whether it be the atomic bomb itself, or the radiation doses that came with it.
The assurance of safety by officials both at Hanford and from the United States government to the people of Richland and Hanford workers is another very important cultural and political aspect of the denial of excessive radiation. There are countless examples of government or Hanford officials releasing statements claiming that the area was safe from any kind of radioactivity when in fact the opposite was known to be true. From the start of work with plutonium, Hanford officials knew of the dangers of radioactivity and decided to go ahead with the operations anyway.
The importance of the bomb project seemed to take precedence over the worker’s safety. [Hymer] Friedell* was concerned that radiation protection standards for plutonium that were set too low might impede production of plutonium. The project’s leadership apparently determined that the development of the bomb was worth the potential of exposing workers to as yet unknown dangers from radiation.
One of the best ways for government and Hanford officials to calm worker’s worries of excessive radiation was to repeat the rhetoric of radiation as being part of the human experience, and therefore nothing out of the ordinary. Herbert M. Parker, a radiation scientist that studied Hanford and other large nuclear plants, released a short paper in 1951, two years after the Green Run, that was meant for distribution to workers of Hanford. “The air we have always breathed contains these radioactive gases in minute quantity…Furthermore, every living thing is continuously subjected to bombardments from radiations…So there is nothing new in man having to face radiation or radioactive substances.” While statements like these may have put Parker’s and Hanford worker’s minds at ease for a while, Parker knew of the radiation effects that were slowly affecting workers and civilians of the area. Just thirteen years later, he wrote a research paper saying explicitly, “The Hanford facilities release larger quantities of radioactive materials to surface waters than any of the other North American sites.” He then went on to describe which ‘radioactive materials’ released would affect the environment in what ways. Along with fish and irrigated crops being affected, he states that the drinking water in the area was contaminated; the effect being not only on the gastro-intestinal tract of residents, but specifically thyroid issues in children. Of course, this was not released to the Hanford public at the time.
When the Hanford documents were released in the 1980s, statements like ‘radiation is natural’ did not change. Hanford’s PR head at the time, Mike Lawrence, spoke incessantly about the safety of both the work at Hanford and the environment. His attack on the radiation claims included three points. The first was that the documents referred to incidents in which nothing seriously dangerous had taken place. The second point relied on the government’s actions being justified, considering the context of the times. The final argument was that all those problems lay in the past, and that Hanford now followed even harsher safety and environmental rules. For those individuals that fought hard for transparency from the documents, these statements were inflammatory. But for Hanford workers and area citizens who trusted in their government, these words put faith back into Hanford officials that their work, environment, and lives were safe.
The last reason for the denial of exposure to harmful radiation is one that is specific to workers at Hanford. “Hanfordization”, a term coined by the workers themselves, embodied the careless spirit surrounding safety at Hanford. Although officials cite safety precautions used at Hanford, the reality is that the few people who adhere to the more stringent precautions are stigmatized by the majority of workers. Inez Austin, a Hanford worker who monitored liquid waste disposal, describes how “Hanfordization” translates to the workplace.
“They were just plain macho when it came to radiation. Take the tank farms. They expected you to just hold your breath and run past areas where there was radiation. They said it saved the time you would use up putting on the protective suits. It just seemed careless to me, but I didn’t push it. You know, you don’t want them to think you’re holier-than-thou. God help you if they think you’re not on the team.”
This “Hanfordization” culture not only applied to radiation, but to work itself. One pipefitter was quoted as saying, “At least I’ll check the welds more carefully than someone who doesn’t give a shit…” Not all men and women working at Hanford buy into “Hanfordization”, but many do. But the casualness surrounding Hanford works was present in the building and designing of Hanford too.
As with many other wartime industries, the government prided itself on fast and efficient work. Even though it was important to the war that the United States produce the atomic bomb the quickest, Hanford safety and construction regulations suffered because of hasty work. The lack of documentation about how the reactors were built if problematic not just for safety standards, but also because Hanford was one of the pioneering plants for plutonium. This sort of extraction work had not been widely done in the United States before, but because construction work was moving so quickly, the documentation was not handled in a way that would provide blueprints for more plants like Hanford.
Hanfordization was the dark side of the can-do spirit that had made Hanford work during World War II. At that time, engineers and mechanics were creating one-of-a-kind machines, and they often made up the rules as they went. But over the course of forty years, standards had been set by the nuclear industry. Hanfordized workers would tend to ignore these standards in favor of their own judgment.
The disregard for standardization of construction in World War II had been carried on throughout generations of Hanford workers. Unfortunately, this “Hanfordization” culture led to an indifference concerning radiation safety precautions by Hanford workers.
The issue of radiation effects in Hanford and the surrounding areas is one of immense sadness and pain. While many tirelessly worked for the recognition and compensation for people suffering from radiation diseases, many others from the Hanford community worked just as hard to keep those stories buried. This culture of radiation denial stemmed from more than forty years of loyalty, secrecy, assured safety, and “Hanfordization” from workers and citizens. But it is also important to remember those who were a part of that culture and defied it to speak out against the government and Hanford for their carelessness concerning radiation. In 1993, a group of these workers and farmers filed a lawsuit against government contractors in charge of Hanford. As of January 2010, the case has yet to go to trial; but the government has spent over 57 million to defend companies like Du Pont and General Electric against these radiation claims. Despite this, citizens from Richland and the surrounding areas still remain adamant that these claims are embellished. Only time will tell if those involved in the lawsuit will receive moral and economic justice.
Beckman, Rachel. Personal Interview. 13 February 2011.
D’Antonio, Michael. Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal. New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1993. Print.
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Krogness, Carolyn and Gary Gesell, eds. Great Memories: Early Hanford and the Tri-Cities. Richland, WA: Hanford 50th Anniversary Association, 1994. Print.
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Parker, Herbert M., R.F. Foster, I.L. Ophel. “North American experience in the release of low-level waste to riers and lakes.” Herbert M. Parker: Publications and Other Contributions to Radiological and Health Physics. Ed. Ronald Kathren, Raymond Baalman, William Bair. Richland, WA: Battelle Press, 1986. 780-787. Print.
Parker, Herbert M. and S.T. Cantril. “Status of Health and Protection at the Hanford Engineer Works.” Herbert M. Parker: Publications and Other Contributions to Radiological and Health Physics. Ed. Ronald Kathren, Raymond Baalman, William Bair. Richland, WA: Battelle Press, 1986. 306-314. Print.
Sanger, S.L. and Robert W. Mull. Hanford and the Bomb: An Oral History of World War II. Seattle, WA: Living History Press, 1989. Print.
Steele, Karen Dorn. “Downwinders- living with fear.” Spokesman-Review [Spokane, WA] 28 July 1985. 1. Print.
Steele, Karen Dorn. “The night the ‘little demons’ were born.” Spokesman-Review [Spokane, WA] 28 July 1985. 10. Print.
The Associated Press. “Settlement talk emerges in Hanford downwinder case.” OregonLive.com. 22 April 2009. Web. <http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/04/settlement_talk_emerges_in_han.html>
* Hymer Friedell was the deputy to Stafford Warren, a medical advisor for a Hanford General.