PASCO, Wash. — Betty Perkes has always known that something wasn't right. Five of the seven members of her family are on thyroid medication. So it came as little surprise when the federal government admitted this week that the radiation releases decades ago from the atomic weapons plant nearby were big enough to leave people seriously ill.
What makes Perkes furious is that the releases appear to have been intentional. The federal government knew about them; it even monitored their effects. And it is that chilling notion that fuels the worst fears of Hanford Nuclear Reservation "downwinders" like Perkes--the idea that perhaps they were part of a secret experiment.
"Yes, our government was so good to us," Perkes said Friday in the white brick farmhouse her husband built on land the government sold at a discount to Korean War veterans during a time that the government was building up its weapons program.
"They brought us out here and they used us for guinea pigs . . . . How dare they do that to us? And without asking if we wanted to be experimented on. How dare they!"
The U.S. Department of Energy and a special investigative panel acknowledged this week that thousands of men, women and children living in the 10 counties surrounding the Hanford reservation were exposed between 1944 and 1947 to doses of radioactive iodine 131 that were large enough to cause significant illnesses, including thyroid disease and cancer. By some estimates, no other group of civilians in the world is known to have been exposed to as much radiation over such a period of time.
The iodine, produced in the process of making plutonium for nuclear bombs, is believed to have landed on vegetation and to have been eaten by cows in the fertile farmland downwind of the reservation. Iodine accumulates in the human thyroid gland and can cause abnormalities. It is believed to have posed the greatest risk to infants who were fed on locally produced milk.
It remains unclear, however, how many illnesses might have been caused by the releases, which first came to light through a public records act request by a public interest group in 1986. At that time, it became clear that the government not only knew about some of the releases but may have even planned them and set out to monitor the effects.
On Thursday, the government for the first time admitted that the releases were enough to result in illness.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and a Seattle-based cancer research center have begun a study of the extent and severity of thyroid disease in the region.
The findings came from just the first phase of the five-year federally funded Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project, which examined airborne radioactive iodine emissions in the 1940s and radioactive cooling water poured into the Columbia River from 1964 to 1967. The panel has yet to examine other time periods, including a December, 1949, experiment in which radioactive iodine and other fission products were released in a plume that extended as far as Spokane.
"Prior to yesterday's announcement, there were very few people willing to even consider the fact that this had happened," said Lois Camp, 48, who grew up in Kahlotus, northeast of Hanford in the path of the prevailing west-to-east winds and who fears her heart condition may be related to radioactive releases. "I don't want to rain on the parade of this announcement, but it must be a beginning, not an end. The thyroid disease is just the tip of the iceberg."
Word of the announcements hit hard this week in the small cities and farm towns east and northeast of the nuclear reservation, nestled between and around the Snake and Columbia rivers. This is an area that residents themselves describe as patriotic, conservative and God-fearing. As third-generation farmer Tom Bailie puts it, they take "a hairy-chested attitude to life."
So there were some here who chose not to believe the disturbing news. They blamed the media, anti-nuclear groups, perhaps a few desperate "downwinders," the name taken by several hundred residents who have pressed for investigations of the releases.
Orville Weiss, for example, who hauls seed potato, referred to the issue as a lot of "squawkin' and hollerin' " and suggested, "If someone don't control those environmentalists, the human race is going to be extinct."
But there were others who admitted that the announcements had given them pause. For the first time, they said, they had begun taking stock. Carole Hackwith, 52, a mother of five whose husband is a surveyor at Hanford, began pondering her recollection that 13 people on the block where she grew up had come down with various cancers, including her parents and herself.