Luxton on Pritikin, 'The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice'

Author: 
Trisha T. Pritikin
Reviewer: 
India Luxton

Trisha T. Pritikin. The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020. Illustrations. xvi + 348 pp. $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7006-2904-6

Reviewed by India Luxton (Colorado State University) Published on H-Environment (September, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56390

Trisha T. Pritikin’s The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice is a remarkable work that sheds light on the lived experiences of the Hanford plaintiffs, experiences that were greatly shaped by the nuclear fallout of the Hanford nuclear site in southeastern Washington State. As radiation is invisible to our senses, it is easy to mask its existence. The health impacts of living near Hanford therefore remained contested by government officials and institutions and industry representatives for decades. The Hanford Plaintiffs is a story about a community that was unknowingly exposed to nuclear contamination and radiation for decades and about officials and industry that let poor management and legal loopholes proliferate. It is an all-too-common story about an industry that sought economic gain and military advancement at the expense of public health. The Hanford Plaintiffs documents the lived experiences of those affected by Hanford, experiences that remain only marginally recognized by the government. This book is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the impacts of nuclear production and the ways our nuclear history has been shielded from public consciousness.

Pritikin weaves together a historical account of Hanford’s contamination, highlighting the continued practices of industry and governmental negligence at the cost of downwinder well-being. What is particularly novel, and heart wrenching, are the stories of the plaintiffs themselves. Few studies have been conducted that address the lived experiences of people living in the shadow of nuclear production all along the fuel cycle.[1] Too often the voices of those who bear the brunt of environmental injustices remain unheard. Pritikin’s work fills a gap in the literature through juxtaposing the lived experiences of Hanford downwinders with the “official” story. A common thread that unites each plaintiff story is trust in the government: trust that they were kept safe, trust that they would be informed if an issue arose, and trust that the area which they called home was a safe place to reside. Unfortunately, this trust was misplaced. Years following exposure, each plaintiff suffered from debilitating health problems that they link to living downwind of Hanford. And yet these health consequences remain contested and disputed.

In each chapter, Pritikin documents key patterns of nuclear testing and contamination, including the Green Run, which released 5,500 curies of iodide-131 and other fission products, and the continued failure of the government to inform and warn the public at the detriment of public health. Parallels between key nuclear events and the subsequent impact on civilians make for an informative, accessible, and engaging read. Major thematic points of the book include narratives of those affected by Hanford, continued governmental negligence in the pursuit of nuclear production, and the extensive legal battle to hold Hanford and the government responsible. Each chapter begins with a historical account of Hanford practices, provides associated scientific reports and studies, and concludes with relevant plaintiff stories that trace how these nuclear events shaped their lives. By juxtaposing Hanford activities with plaintiff testimonies, the book draws parallels between Hanford practices and their consequences.

By 1945, scientists at Hanford were well aware of the consequences of exposure to radioactive isotopes and, in the years following, engaged in research studies that tracked worker exposure and subsequent impacts. Children living downwind were also studied. And yet, despite the increasing rates of cancer and illness in the area, Hanford routinely released hundreds of harmful radioactive substances into the environment and failed to alert the public about the potential health risks. In fact, it took decades for the health risks to be recognized; a lengthy legal battle culminated in a resolution that many plaintiffs felt was lacking in justice. Even more alarming is the lack of scientific studies that documented the impact of living near Hanford, the dose reconstructions project that asked individuals to recall diet and lifestyle habits as young children decades later, and the intense efforts by the government to counter what limited studies were done that assessed the damage done by Hanford.

While many die immediately from radiation exposure, the health effects of nuclear exposure persist for years. As radiation illness is not a specific stand-alone disease, its symptoms present in a multitude of ways, often many years following toxic exposure. Victims suffer from delayed health consequences of radiation exposure, which include elevated rates of cancer, reproductive disorders, tumors, and abnormal development. Plaintiffs in the Hanford case suffered from a range of illnesses, including thyroid cancer, Hashimoto’s disease, autoimmune disorders, leukemia, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and many more. As each plaintiff’s story unfolds, it is difficult to not feel angry about their lives being sacrificed due to nuclear production and the government’s failure to protect civilians from nuclear fallout. Idyllic childhoods carried dark secrets: playing in what is now known as nuclear contaminated dirt and water and consuming a diet of fresh (nuclear-contaminated) milk and locally grown (in contaminated soil) produce. One example: Michael Helland spent his childhood in Spokane Valley and was only twenty years old when doctors discovered papillary thyroid cancer, which ultimately resulted in the removal of his thyroid. His thyroid cancer was the beginning of a lifetime of ailments, including ankylosing spondylitis, which greatly reduced the quality of his life. Michael’s story is one of many highlighted by Pritikin, stories that document the consequences of government and industry negligence.

Exposure to nuclear contamination not only altered the lives of plaintiffs but also left a lingering nuclear legacy across familial generations. Brenda Weaver, another plaintiff, was the daughter of a World War II veteran, notable given the government farmland program that provided her father the ability to purchase affordable land in Eltopia, an area now known for its contaminated nature. Like the lambs born without eyes in 1953, Weaver’s daughter was born with the same birth defect. These health issues had a lasting impact on the Weaver family, and more broadly, the countless other individuals who were unjustly exposed to Hanford’s nuclear contamination. Plaintiff narratives, and the extensive research done by Pritikin, illustrate a troubling pattern of health consequences at the hands of the government.

The stories of Hanford downwinders’ remind us not only of the suffering of those who were unwillingly sacrificed but also of what little has been done in cases of nuclear contamination to address or legitimate cases of illness. The Hanford story is one nuclear site out of many; Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (2012) and Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (2013) are other key reads for anyone interested in learning more about nuclear production sites and their consequences. Pritikin’s work is particularly noteworthy as she documents the stories of twenty-four plaintiffs, providing an avenue to share their lived experiences.

The Hanford Plaintiffs is a critical step in documenting the stories of the Hanford plaintiffs and is a must read for anyone interested in learning more about nuclear production and its lasting public health implications. This book is well suited for both a scholarly and more general audience, given its accessible writing style and its informative documentation of Hanford practices and their subsequent impacts. Pritikin’s work has significant contributions to understanding our nuclear history and its lasting toxic legacy. Moreover, this work sheds light on a topic that often remains out of the domain of public conversation: the sacrifice of civilians due to governmental negligence. In providing an avenue to share downwinders’ stories, Pritikin highlights the need to hold the government and corporations accountable for protecting public health both then and now.

Pritikin’s book sheds light on the stories of Hanford downwinders, a key step in gaining societal recognition. It is when government actors begin to act on these experiences that we can address toxic legacies of sites and create a better future for all.

Note

[1]. See, for example, Stephanie A. Malin, The Price of Nuclear Power (New York: Rutgers University Press, 2015).

Citation: India Luxton. Review of Pritikin, Trisha T., The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. September, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56390

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.