Atomic America

Mourners of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings gathered on the Plaza Aug. 6, marking the 63rd year since the U.S. dropped the bombs. And while Japan took the blunt blow of radiation, so did many Americans, while the government kept quiet, all in the name of national security.

In 1949, an intentional release of radiation known as the Green Run released 8,000 curies of iodine-131 over two days at the atomic plant in Hanford, Wash. The contractors at the plant deliberately released radioactive iodine-131 as part of the tests for the Manhattan Project.

Iodine is present in the Earth and necessary for our thyroids, but iodine-131 is a byproduct of plutonium production and unable to be processed by our bodies; it is also indistinguishable by our thyroid gland. Their idea was to track the release and its effects, except, the scientists did not anticipate heavy rains and winds. The I-131 was spewed over our region the same way Mt. St. Helens spewed ash. While scientists were aware of the releases and were privy to the health effects, no atomic official alerted the public that the winds were spreading radiation from California to the Canadian border and even eastward to Montana.

The I-131 released by the Green Run settled over the countryside, where it was eaten by the cows who then gave iodine-laced milk and peoples' bodies became radiated as they consumed that milk. Those exposed became struck with illness from reproductive problems, and losing skin pigment, to cancers.

Years later, Gertie Hanson assumed responsibility to coordinate class reunions in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Many of her classmates notified that they were unable to attend due to cancers, especially involving the thyroid.

At the same time, Barbara Howard of Milton Freewater was collecting similar information when she noticed excessive cancer-related deaths in the obituary section of her local newspaper.

Many of us have heard of the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, where a partial core meltdown of their nuclear power plant happened in 1979. Three Mile Island released 20 curies of iodine-131 into the atmosphere, terrifying the nation. 738,222 curies of iodine-131 were released in Hanford from 1944-58, not only effecting the public, but also contaminating the Columbia River, which went largely unreported for years.

The Columbia River played a pivotal role in Hanford operations. A huge volume of water from the Columbia was required to dissipate the heat produced by Hanford's nuclear reactors. From 1944-71, pump systems drew cooling water from the river and returned it to the river after treating the water for use by the nuclear reactors. Before being released back into the river, the used water was held in large tanks for up to six hours.

1957, the eight plutonium production reactors at Hanford dumped a daily average of 50,000 curies of radioactive material into the Columbia. The releases, of course, were kept secret by the federal government. Radiation was later measured downstream as far west as the Washington and Oregon coasts. Columbia River fish became another major source of radiation, an impact largely felt by Native American communities who depended on the river as a major food source.

Though Hanford is no longer active, the manufacturing process left behind 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste that remains at the site today.

Perhaps the saddest part of the story is the fact that the men working at the plant felt they were protecting their families from the war effort. They didn't know the production of the bomb, which the government would later claim saved them, was exposing them and their families to toxic levels of radiation. A ruthless and selfish act (which happens with alarming regularity) by our government &

the same one claiming to protect us.

There is no doubt the atomic bomb had serious health effects, not only on the residents of Japan, but on Americans, as well, who were, ironically, radiation victims long before the explosion, long before Hiroshima.

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