Interview with Trisha Thompson Pritikin.
Author of "The Hanford
Trisha Pritikin’s The Hanford Plaintiffs was the winner of the History
category at the 2020 San Francisco Book Festival. But it’s really a horror story
about the abuse suffered by victims of radiation poisoning at the hands of the
US government during its push to develop atomic weapons during World War II,
with a particular locus at the Hanford reactor in Washington state.
In the book, we hear the oral histories of people who were affected by the
radioactive leakage from the plant and the debilitating impact on their health.
It’s equal parts astonishing and scary, and it’s a well-researched tale of
government malfeasance when it comes to making things right for those victims.
Pritikin’s book is available through the University Press of Kansas or at
Amazon.com. We asked her questions about the book’s impact and whether we should
be concerned about other issues that are potentially being covered up.
Q: There is much written by others about the banality of evil. What are your
thoughts on the government, based on the book? Are they malevolent, or is it a
bureaucracy that is just CYA.
TRISHA PRITIKIN: Throughout the wartime Manhattan Project and decades of the
Cold War era that followed, the Hanford nuclear weapons facility in southcentral
Washington State secretly released over 800,000 curies of airborne I-131, a
radioactive isotope of iodine, along with a vast range of other radionuclides,
throughout much of the Pacific Northwest. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) did
not inform people in communities downwind of Hanford that they were in harm’s
way, within the path of undetectable radioactive fallout.
During the Manhattan Project and frenetic US Cold War nuclear weapons production
and testing program that followed, the AEC knowingly sacrificed the health of
civilians downwind and downriver of Hanford. Many people, exposed to radiation
released from the Hanford facility during Manhattan Project and Cold War years,
were later diagnosed with cancers, autoimmune disease, reproductive disorders,
and other significant health issues likely caused by those exposures. It is not
possible to definitively prove which of the downwinders’ diseases were caused by
these exposures. However, based on epidemiologic studies of populations exposed
to I-131 and other airborne radionuclides released from nuclear weapons tests
and reactor accidents including the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it is more
probable than not that thyroid cancer, thyroid disease, parathyroid disease,
autoimmune diseases and a number of cancers related to airborne radiation and to
the radionuclides dumped by Hanford operators directly into the Columbia River
were the result of exposure downwind and downriver of Hanford.
It would have been feasible as well as humane for the AEC to introduce simple,
cost-effective measures to protect the health of downwind and downriver
communities, even if national security concerns prevented the government from
publicly revealing that the Hanford site manufactured plutonium and released the
radioactive byproducts of production to air and water offsite. Local radioactive
milk and milk products could have
been confiscated and destroyed as they were following partial meltdown of the
Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor on March 28, 1979 near Middletown, PA, when
18-21 curies of I-131 were released downwind. Local dairies could have been
compensated for these losses of product. Non-radioactive milk and other dairy
products from areas outside of Hanford’s fallout region could have been imported
for consumption within the Hanford area, even if the reason for doing so was not
Non-radioactive iodine or iodized table salt, which were simple, cost-effective
public health measures that would have protected the thyroid against the damage
caused by ingestion and inhalation of I-131, could have been provided to
Hanford’s downwind communities. In 1945, a secret Hanford memo recommended that
the public be advised to use iodized salt or that only iodized salt be made
available in area stores, and that Hanford workers be given a dose of
nonradioactive iodine during their monthly medical examinations. These
recommendations were rejected by the AEC over concern that these measures might
provoke “undue alarm” amongst workers and members of the public.
Finally, if the AEC had informed downwind and downriver communities that they
were in harm’s way, within the path of radiation released from nuclear weapons
production and testing sites, federal assistance could have been provided to
relocate families to safe areas outside fallout zones. Members of downwind
communities, sharing the fear of most Americans at the time over potential
Soviet nuclear attack against the United States, would have likely been willing
to relocate, both for their own safety and out of a sense of patriotic duty.
Historians advise that the actions of government must be judged within the
context of the politics and pressures of the times. This is not to say that the
failure of the AEC to protect the health of civilian populations downwind and
downriver of nuclear weapons production and testing sites should be excused in
light of political pressures of wartime and the ensuing Cold War nuclear arms
race. Instead, instances of government failure to introduce measures to protect
public health must be evaluated individually. What specific protective measures
were available and how easily could they have been introduced? If these measures
had been introduced, would they have caused actual detriment to national
security? If so, how did the level of potential detriment to national security
weigh against the ethical and moral implications of failing to protect the
health of families downwind of nuclear weapons production and testing sites?
Did the AEC’s failure to protect the public from Hanford’s radiation releases
constitute malevolence on the part of the US government? My answer is yes. I
believe that the AEC’s failure to protect the public satisfies the second
definition of malevolent as described below.
Webster’s Dictionaryi defines “malevolent” as 1) having, showing, or arising
from intense often vicious ill will, spite, or hatred; or 2) productive of harm
or evil. The AEC’s failure to introduce even the simple measures I have
discussed above in order to protect the health of Hanford downwind and downriver
civilians was not the product of vicious ill
will, spite, or hatred. This failure, was, however, “productive of harm,” the
second definition of malevolent.
The question further asks whether the AEC engaged in CYA behavior in its
relentless efforts to amass a Cold War nuclear stockpile at all costs? I do not
believe this was CYA behavior so much as the product of “consequences-be-damned”
fast-forward momentum in an intense Cold War arms race against the former Soviet
Union, a powerful adversary seen as capable of launching a devastating nuclear
attack against our country at any time.
Q: Would the downwinders have been helped by the internet?
TP: In order to answer the question of whether public availability of the
internet during wartime and Cold War Hanford operations would have helped the
downwinders, two possible scenarios must be considered. The first scenario is
that of an internet in which public access was unrestricted; and the second is
that of an internet with tight government controls over what could be publicly
shared. The level of control in the latter scenario would have been equivalent
to the secrecy and compartmentalization in place during the Manhattan project
and Cold War US nuclear weapons production and testing program.
In the first scenario, providing unrestricted public internet access, we can
assume that technology allowing the public to detect airborne radiation would
likely also have been developed and publicly available, as it is today. It is
very doubtful, under these circumstances, that the Atomic Energy Commission
could have released radiation throughout the Pacific Northwest and into the
Columbia River without members of the public, using this technology, detecting
these releases. This information, in turn, would have been widely disseminated
via the internet. Public protest would likely then have resulted in
congressional inquiry, and potentially, in a court-issued injunction against
further radiation release from nuclear weapons production and testing facilities
until the safety of these releases could be assessed.
If the internet had been available without restriction to the downwinders, it
would have allowed these communities to widely share local health information
through online maps tracking incidence of disease. A hand-drawn kitchen table
map, created by Hanford area farmer Juanita Andrewjeski in the early 1980s,
plotted the incidence of heart attacks in young men who worked the fields on
area farms along with cancer diagnoses in members of communities across from
Hanford. Such a map could have been shared online, making the public widely
aware that something was amiss in the region around Hanford.
The internet has empowered the public in many ways. Online news accounts have
documented increased incidence of cancer in people living around radioactively
contaminated Cold Water Creek, MO along with accounts of health issues
potentially related to contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan. The
internet serves as a
powerful and cost-effective ally to grass-roots community groups trying to get
the word out about patterns of disease observed in their communities. The
internet also allows communities to locate and contact residents in order to
watch for developing disease patterns that might be related to toxic exposure.
If the internet had been available during Manhattan Project and Cold War years
with national security claimed by the AEC as justification for strict controls
over what people could share, there is little chance that the downwinders would
have benefitted unless they could have devised means to circumvent these
Q: What would have represented true justice to you for the various cases?
TP: The mass toxic tort litigation known as In re Hanford Nuclear
Reservation Litigation (In re Hanford) initially involved around 5,000 personal
injury downwinder plaintiffs. Toxic tort injuries are more complicated than
injuries described by traditional tort scenarios. In a traditional tort injury,
A might hit B, causing injury to B. In this case, causation is clear. In a toxic
tort involving radiation injury, A might expose B to radiation. B doesn’t know
he or she has been exposed, and doesn’t develop radiation-related cancer or
other disease until several decades later, after passage of a latency period
that can last for several decades. This makes proving causation in toxic tort
cases very complicated. It is extremely difficult for a toxic tort plaintiff to
prove that a specific exposure caused his or her specific disease, in part
because other potential causes of the disease could have occurred during the
extended latency period. As the result of the challenges of proving causation in
toxic tort cases, many In re Hanford plaintiffs who now suffer from cancer or
other disease were not able to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that
radiation exposure caused their specific disease. As the result, a large number
of Hanford downwinder plaintiffs did not receive monetary settlement, even
though their cancer or other disease may well have been caused by exposure to
Hanford’s radiation. Those plaintiffs who did receive monetary settlement often
received meager sums that did not cover relevant medical expenses, let alone
loss of earning potential due to disease-related disability, or pain and
This is not justice.
In The Hanford Plaintiffs, I describe my vision for government response to the
plight of health-damaged civilian downwinders, a response that I feel is both
equitable and compassionate. I propose that a national compensation program be
created, treating civilians who lived downwind or downriver of US nuclear
weapons production and testing sites during periods of release of radioactive
fallout from those sites in the same way nuclear workers are treated under
federal law (EEOICPA, or Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation
Program Act). Under my proposed plan, if downwind or downriver civilians:
a) develop any of the cancers or other diseases recognized as radiogenic
(radiation-caused) for nuclear workers under the EEOICPA,
b) and they lived for at least a minimum defined period of time downwind or
downriver of a designated nuclear weapons production or testing site during
documented offsite radiation release,
c) they should receive compensation for their cancer or other disease at levels
comparable to the compensation received by nuclear workers.
Under the EEOICPA, Hanford nuclear workers and workers at many other nuclear
sites are considered to be part of “special exposure cohorts” (SECs). As members
of SECs, these workers are not required to provide documentation of their
specific radiation exposure dose in order to prove that their individual cancer
or other disease was caused by their exposure to radiation. These nuclear
workers are, in other words, given the benefit of the doubt- the assumption is
made that the disease in that worker was caused by radiation exposure. I believe
that civilian downwinders should also be considered to be part of an SEC. The
government intentionally failed to monitor civilians’ radiation exposure levels.
It is therefore wholly unjust as well as virtually impossible to document the
exposure dose they received. Furthermore, while nuclear workers signed on for
work within the nuclear weapons complex, work that they knew posed certain
exposure health risks (although they may not have known the full extent of the
risks involved), civilian downwinders, many of whom were exposed during infancy
and childhood, did not voluntarily assume the risk of radiation exposure.
Finally, it would also be highly appropriate for the US government to issue a
long-overdue official apology to US downwinders and to civilians exposed to
fallout from atomic tests conducted by the US within the Pacific Proving Grounds
for cancers and other radiogenic diseases that are the result of these
Q: Is there still danger in the Hanford area? Radiation lasts a long time.
TP: It is not within my expertise to assess the current hazards posed by the
Hanford site. NGO watchdog groups that track these issues can provide current
information on these questions as well as on the clean-up efforts, successes as
well as the failures, underway at Hanford.
Q: How has writing this book affected you? Do you feel the same way about
doctors and/or the government?
TP: People often ask me how I felt about meeting people with the cancers and
other serious health issues suffered by the individuals whose stories appear in
the book. My reply is always the same. The people I interviewed have many of the
same health issues as my own family. In fact, my family’s story is included in
The Hanford Plaintiffs, as our health was significantly impacted by Hanford
operations, and we were, as the result, also personal injury plaintiffs in the
You ask how writing the book has affected me. I can say that I do not feel
depressed as the result of interviewing so many people injured by Hanford’s
radiation releases. Rather, I feel empowered. My goal was to join our stories
together as one voice, as our stories together are far more powerful than they
are individually. Seeing our stories together now within this published book, I
know that my goal has been realized. I also believe that the only way for the
public to understand the human toll of Hanford operations is to hear from the
people who lived downwind and downriver and who now suffer with a range of
cancers and other serious diseases identified as radiation-caused. Because these
are the stories of everyday people, readers can easily identify with them and
with their suffering.
This question asks whether I feel the same way about doctors and/or the
government. While I’m not sure exactly what this question is asking, I can say
that I do trust my own doctors, and that they are respectful of my work on
Hanford and have been very helpful to me in my efforts to cope with the
difficult challenges of diseases, including autoimmune thyroiditis and
hypoparathyroidism, resulting from my years of exposure during childhood to
radioactive iodine. As to whether I trust the government, that is a totally
different question. In question #1, above, I address the question of whether the
Atomic Energy Commission was malevolent in its actions towards the downwinders.
Q: You focused on Hanford, and at the end of the book, mentioned the other
areas that could have DoE radiation problems. How are those being addressed, if
TP: In The Hanford Plaintiffs, I wanted to make readers aware of the larger
population of civilians who lived downwind of US nuclear weapons production and
testing sites, or who were exposed from their work in the uranium industry. Many
of these people suffer today from the same cancers and other radiogenic
(radiation-caused) diseases as the Hanford downwinders.
The response by the US government, responsible for placing these civilians in
harm’s way, has been inefficient, inequitable and piecemeal. What I mean by this
is that while certain subgroups of downwinders have received compensation and
health care, others have not. For instance, certain groups of health damaged
Nevada Test Site (NTS) downwinders who lived in counties close-in to the NTS are
currently eligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation
Act (RECA), while others, in geographic areas that have been found to have even
higher fallout deposition from above-ground tests conducted at the NTS, are not
eligible for compensation or care under RECA. Congressional representatives with
constituents in NTS fallout areas outside of RECA eligibility, including
downwind of the Trinity Test Site, have repeatedly introduced failed bills in
Congress to expand RECA to their constituents.
Manhattan Project and Cold War production sites around the US differ as to the
amount of radiation released offsite. They also differ as to the public health
response by the US government to any health issues reported by people who lived
downwind of those sites.
There are also sites where radioactive waste from Manhattan Project and Cold War
weapons production is stored, some of which has leaked offsite or into nearby
streams. People who live near these storage facilities for a minimum defined
period of time, and who develop radiogenic cancers and other diseases following
documented leaks of radioactive substances from these sites, should be included
within any federal compensation program, as discussed in my response to question
Q: How easy or difficult was it to get people to talk about their cases?
TP: The downwinders whose stories are included in The Hanford Plaintiffs
responded to a letter I sent out in late 2015, as the final cases were settled,
inviting former In re Hanford plaintiffs to participate in this project. About a
third of the former plaintiffs I invited decided to be interviewed. Several
later decided not to participate. Two of those who did participate decided not
to use their full names.
I have worked for over thirty years on Hanford issues, and during that time, I
have met many people who are afraid to speak publicly about health issues that
they feel may have resulted from their exposure to Hanford’s radiation. The
reasons for this vary. Before Obamacare provided protections against denial of
health insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions, many people worried that,
had their insurance carriers learned of their earlier radiation exposure, any
disease that might have resulted from that exposure would be excluded from
coverage as a pre-existing condition. This kept many people from speaking
publicly about their exposures and health issues.
The stigma of radiation exposure must also be acknowledged as it often causes
people to hesitate to talk about their exposure. While not as major an issue in
the US as it is in Japan,
There is still stigma attached to radiation exposure in US culture, in that
people perceive exposure as potentially resulting in genetic mutations in the
offspring of those exposed. It is not often possible to prove one way or the
other whether a birth defect or disease in a child was caused by the parent’s
exposure to radiation. From what I have learned from people who work with
Japanese Hibakusha (survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and
with people downwind of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor accident in 2011, the
stigma against both the Hibakusha and Fukushima downwinders in Japan is much
more severe than anything experienced by radiation survivors in the U.S.
Q: How aware of this history are the medical professionals in the Hanford
TP: I currently live in northern California. I have been surprised over the
years by the level of awareness of Hanford’s radiation releases by physicians
and other medical professionals in the SF Bay Area. All of the health care
providers who currently treat my health issues relating to childhood exposure
downwind of Hanford know about the facility and my exposures. Many have treated
other Hanford downwinders, as quite a number of Hanford downwinders now live in
California and other parts of the country.
In the Hanford area, and across the Pacific Northwest, the level of awareness of
Hanford and Hanford’s radiation releases is very high, particularly for
endocrinologists who treat patients with thyroid and parathyroid disease (the
primary diseases seen in many Hanford downwinders) and for oncologists, who
often treat downwinders with thyroid cancer and other cancers.
I have found that many of the medical professionals I have met are aghast at the
levels of radiation covertly released onto the public from Hanford. I am
thinking that part of this high level of sympathy comes from the fact that these
health professionals end up treating some very aggressive cancers in the
downwinders, and they see the extreme levels of suffering we endure.
I do recall that, in 1986, just after the Department of Energy declassified
early Hanford operating records revealing Hanford’s decades of secret radiation
releases throughout the Pacific Northwest, it took a few years before physicians
and other medical professionals were able to understand the broad scope of
endocrine cancers, disorders, and other diseases they were seeing in the
downwinders. I am thinking that the severity and extent of the injuries to the
people of the Pacific Northwest was hard to fathom. This is still the case for
those who have just learned of the injustices committed against the downwinders.
Q: These problems were caused by radiation and were covered up. Did writing
this book cause you to wonder about other things going on that may also be
deleterious to health that are either not being talked about or covered up? We
hear about 5G, chemtrails, etc. Without getting too paranoid, should we be
TP: I learned almost forty years after my childhood exposure that the
government had placed my family in danger as our country jumped headlong into
the new science and technology of nuclear weapons, without assessing the health
implications to the public of producing and testing these weapons.
I would advise people to be concerned over any new technology that might
potentially pose a health hazard. It is impossible to know whether new
electrical or digital products or other technology is safe until that product or
technology has been used for some time and either reveals a track record of
safety or, in the alternative, health issues begin to be associated its use.
Due to the harm suffered by my family and many like us when the new science of
the atom and atomic weapons was ushered in to American life, I now hesitate when
new technologies are introduced and touted as safe, better, and what everyone
needs and wants. The latest example of this is 5G. If one watches the ads on TV,
one thinks 5G will make things faster, better, and that 5G is something we all
need. Yet, I am currently reading a book by a physician who points out the
negative health implications of 5G networks. Our home has only ethernet (wired)
connections rather than WiFi in order to try to minimize exposure to EMFs, every
cell phone we use has a radiation deflection
cover, I insist upon the use of earphones on cell phone calls, with an EMF
deflecting bead on the headset cord, and I take quite an array of protective
antioxidants daily. My friends who are not downwinders do not take anywhere near
as many health protective actions as I do. I am thinking that what I have
experienced as a health-damaged downwinder has resulted in a combination of
hyper-vigilance and skepticism over the safety of new technologies, along with
possibly a touch of mild PTSD for having been involuntarily exposed to and
damaged from a barrage of undetectable radiation as a child.
Q: Obviously, the legal system is long and slow, and justice is sometimes
delayed or denied. What, short of revolution, can be done to make the system
TP: In answer to this question, please see my detailed discussion,
describing my proposal for a comprehensive, more equitable national compensation
program for health damaged civilian downwinders, in the answer to question #3,
“What would have represented true justice to you for the various cases?” above.
You can check the author's