Now the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is another beast unto its own. It is home to the B reactor, the first full scale plutonium reactor in the world that manufactured plutonium for the U.S. nuclear bomb test in New Mexico in July of 1945 and the bomb that fell over Nagasaki, Japan, a month later. Later eight nuclear reactors and five large plutonium processors were built on the site during the Cold War to produce plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Decades of manufacturing produced 53 million gallons off high-level nuclear tank waste and 25 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste buried in the ground.
A huge volume of water from the Columbia River was required to cool the heat produced from Hanford’s reactors. From 1944-1971, pump systems drew water from the river to cool the reactors and released the river water back out again. The water was held in large retention tanks for up to six hours, and many radioactive isotopes that did not break down were released into the river every day. During this time the Columbia River, downstream from Hanford held the distinction of being the most radioactive river in the United States. Miles away shellfish soon became contaminated along the Washington and Oregon coast with high levels of radioactive isotopes.
Plutonium production at Hanford also released radioactive isotopes into the air. The downwinders from the Hanford plant were people who were exposed to radionuclides, in particular, iodine-131, with the heaviest releases from 1945-1951. The radioactive isotopes carried by wind became part of the food chain, contaminating fields where dairy cows grazed. My best friend’s mother, Marian Reed was 15 in 1946 and living on an island with her family on the Columbia River near Umatilla, Washington, just down from the Hanford plant. After three months of swimming in the river and drinking the water, she began to get ill and remained ill off and on for the rest of her life with chronic inflammatory disorders, one affecting the bowel that was similar to Chrohn’s disease, and another condition called spondyloarthropthy affecting the joints and connective tissue. She had 45 surgeries during her life. She married and raised her children in a small town just west of the Hanford Reservation. Three of her children were born with the spondyloarthropathy marker and her youngest child Susie was born with no hip sockets. Her last pregnancy resulted in a premature birth and death of deformed twins.
Susie is now 60 and has had 25 surgeries herself, including four hip replacements. Susie also developed thyroid cancer at age 46, which is not uncommon of people exposed to iodine-131. She has had to endure chronic pain her whole life. It is hard to prove that radioactive contamination in the area contributed to both Susie’s and Marion’s diseases.
But one fact is known. Marion was totally healthy and strong before moving to that island as a young girl in 1946. And Susie adamantly believes that the radiation from Hanford caused her mother’s illness and contributed to her own deteriorating health condition.
At the time when Hanford was manufacturing plutonium for nuclear arsenals I was living on the other side of the Cascades, probably filing my nails and reading Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man. All I knew from photos of the area that Hanford was another eyesore on the river, the lifeblood of the Northwest. I thought the plant was creating nuclear energy to generate power for nearby cities. I did not know it was contributing to nuclear missiles and bombs or contaminating the countryside. I doubt if most people knew what was really going on there.
Today all the nine reactors have been shut down, and entombed underground, except for B Reactor, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 2008 by the National Park Service, open to the public for occasional guided tours. Yes, quite a scientific feat to produce plutonium, yet a bigger feat is to safely store radioactive waste. The half-life of Plutonium-239, the type created at Hanford B reactor is 24,100 years. It takes ten half- lives before plutonium is considered safe. Just think of all that radioactive waste buried in the ground at the Hanford reservation, a third of it leaking into the groundwater. The clean up of Hanford began in 1989 and has been a massive project coordinated by the Washington Department of Ecology, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and also the Department of Energy. The Department of Energy began building a vitrification plant in 2009, which would combine these dangerous wastes with glass to render them stable. The plant is scheduled to be operational by 2019 with vitrification completed by 2047. What’s a hundred years of radiation exposure when the radioactivity that has leaked will take another 240,000 years to decay to a safe amount? This substance is potent, powerful and unfathomable.
Recently scientists have discovered that Bluefin Tuna caught in California contained ten times the radiation levels considered the norm. These fish migrated across the Pacific from Japan and were likely contaminated by the radioactive fallout from the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors damaged by the tsunami aftermath of the magnitude-9 quake in March 2011.
Out of the six nuclear reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, three of them experienced a full meltdown after flooding damaged the emergency generators that cooled the reactors. Several hydrogen explosions occurred. Fear of radioactivity releases led to a 12-mile radius evacuation around the plant. A significant amount of the radionuclides, Iodine-131, Caesium-134 and Caesium-137 were released into the ocean and into the air. It was Caesium-134 and Caesium-137 that was found in the Bluefin Tuna that caused scientists to pay notice. It was the first time studies showed huge migrating fish to carry radioactivity over such a distance.
Even though the radioactive cesium found in the Bluefin Tuna was ten times higher than found in previous years, it is still considered far below safe to eat standard by the U.S. and Japanese governments. What is safe when it comes to radiation exposure in food, air or water? How much radiation can the human body take before it begins to break down?
The average human exposure to background radiation mostly from cosmic radiation and radon is 300 millirems per year at sea level. A lethal dose of radiation for humans from the atomic explosion of Nagasaki was between 450,000-600,000 millirems of radiation. Doses of above 100,000 millirems can cause the first signs of radiation poisoning: nausea, vomiting, and headaches. Doses of 300,000 millirems cause temporary hair loss and damage nerve cells. Severe loss of white blood cells, which is the body’s defense system, makes radiation victims highly susceptible to disease. The downwinders from Hanford who came down with thyroid cancer and/or other diseases between 1944-1971 may have received a dose of 100,000-300,000 millirems over a period of time, but this is incredibly difficult to calculate and prove.
Plutonium and its fission byproducts are more dangerous when inhaled than when ingested. It is unlikely that ingesting tuna with higher levels of Caesium-134 and Caesium-137 would do much damage to someone eating it. But human exposure to ionizing radiation over longer periods of time can contribute to the body’s immune system breaking down and to the development of cancer.
Today 436 nuclear power plants are operating in the world, 104 in the U.S. It is hard for me to imagine that the Trojan plant no longer exists on the Columbia, because for 20 years it appeared in my visual field every time I drove down Interstate 5 traveling from one end of state to the other. I wonder if the river remembers bearing the weight of that monstrosity? I wonder what detectable radioactive residues exist from Trojan’s radioactive leaks in the ground?
It will take another 35 years to complete the vitrification plant to stabilize the radioactive waste where Trojan is buried at Hanford. Meanwhile plutonium keeps breaking down emitting ionizing radiation. Meanwhile Susie goes in for another surgery or CAT scan, while thousands of others exposed to Hanford’s radiation leakages have filed lawsuits, some who have already collected damages, and some who still fight in court today.
In my mind, the Trojan plant is still blinking its massive eye at me, because I realize it represents the 436 nuclear reactors that operate in the world today. Warning, warning me of the potential hazards of radiation leaking into the water, air and food supply could happen at any moment from the improper containment of waste or from a meltdown caused by an unexpected disaster such as the 2011 8.9 earthquake off the coast of Japan.