Growing up as Collateral Damage

by Emily Pyle

In 1943, the U.S. government razed three towns in Washington–Hanford, Richland, and White Bluffs–to make room for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. It wasn’t until 1945 that nearby families learned that the facility had manufactured plutonium used in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It would be decades more before they learned that the Hanford site had pumped hazardous quantities of nuclear waste–often in intentional, planned releases–into the air, ground, and water.

These days Hanford is a buzzword among environmentalists for one of the most polluted sites in the nation. Teri Hein’s Atomic Farmgirl is a memoir of growing up near the site during the fifties and sixties, when Hanford was nothing more than a local landmark and point of civic pride. With a narrative line that wanders back and forth in time and skips from story to story like a front-porch reminiscence, Hein’s book reads like a collage. Christmas Eve services, 4H outings, and the details of family squabbles jostle against duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters, and hospital visits to friends and relatives stricken with cancer.

Her snapshots of the place and time are sometimes a revealing record of a more naïve era. In a post-Cold War world, it’s startling to be reminded of the whole-hearted and patriotic embrace of nuclear power that prompted residents near Hanford to paint a mushroom cloud on the side of the high school and rename the football team “the Bombers.”

Hein describes a childhood visit to the Hanford plant as an occasion of excitement and pride. “I stood there in awe, my eight- or nine-year-old self amazed at the power we could muster against those Communists,” she writes. “From the top, big gray puffs of nuclear smoke sent Morse Code radioactive warnings to those damn Russians on the other side of the world. ‘You don’t have a chance,’ I read in the smoke that day, standing by the fence.”

Cancer, sickness, and death weave in and out of the story like characters in their own right. The author recounts how the fun of eavesdropping on the party-line telephone dropped off after a gossipy neighbor got lupus, and remembers the casseroles women made for neighbors afflicted with tumors, thyroid problems, and assorted cancers.

Hein’s own story is a sad one. Her father was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 31, and the surgery that saved his life also removed his jugular vein, leaving him with a limp and circulatory problems that later led to a severe stroke. As his health worsened, he was eventually forced to abandon farming.

Dad sold the saddles, threw away the baling twine, rolled, knotted, and disappeared the ropes … We couldn’t fight the feeling of utter sadness. The farm had been transformed into something more like the impersonation of a farm. Nothing happened there.

Throughout the book, the death count of neighbors, relatives, and childhood friends piles up. These memories are often all the more poignant because they are sandwiched between the events of daily life–sauerkraut recipes, egg-gathering, and episodes of Happy Days.

Unfortunately, this technique can also be distracting, as scattered details about favorite horses and nests of baby birds overwhelm the real story. Hein assures us in the prologue and epilogue that she has extensively researched the history of Hanford’s nuclear emissions and their effect on the surrounding populace. Oddly though, little of this history appears in the book. Hein’s few, brief attempts to tie the Hanford plant to the area’s health problems are hesitant and speculative.

This can’t be for lack of material. In 1986 the U.S. Department of Energy finally made available 19,000 pages of documents describing Hanford’s operations in the forties and fifties, including the release of nuclear material into the Columbia River and over 75,000 square miles of land. In Hanford’s “Green Run” in 1949, 8,000 curies of iodine-131 were deliberately released into the air.

Hanford has been the locus of several lawsuits, during which reams of other information about the plant have been brought to light. Residents of the area have filed a class action suit against General Electric, Dupont, and other corporations that were involved in the operation of the Hanford facility. The trial date is set for 2005.

In a case currently pending before a federal district court, the state of Washington is suing the Department of Energy to cease shipments of out-of-state waste into the Hanford site and to begin pumping free liquids from leaking underground tanks. In June 2002, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Yakima Indian Nation fought off an attempt by the Department of Energy to reclassify highest-level nuclear waste as “incidental waste.” (Unlike high-level nuclear waste, which must be stabilized and disposed of in off-site locations, incidental waste can be buried in shallow land burials at the Hanford site.)

While an epidemiological study of the entire area affected by the Hanford releases is incomplete, and results of some studies have been contested, a body of work does exist regarding the health effects of radiation exposure. Some studies suggest that long-term, low-level exposure may have more severe effects on health than brief, high-level exposures like those in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. A study by the Radiation and Public Health Project of the nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, found that the cancer death rate in populations downwind from the plant rose nearly ten times faster than the national rate.

Unfortunately, Hein addresses these issues superficially or not at all. The book was first published in 2000 and reissued in 2003. In the original, Hein suggested that most of the Hanford releases were accidental. She now says that she has learned since that many were planned events. Much of this information was available before the first edition of her book was published. Disappointingly, very little of it shows up in the most recent edition.

The Hanford story has been expertly told elsewhere. (See, for example, Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal by Michael D’Antonio, published by Crown Press in 1993.) In Atomic Farmgirl, Hein has written a faithful and affectionate account of a rural childhood, of a way of life that was passing, even without radiation fallout. She could have told an angrier story about the ways that government secrecy and cover-ups endangered her loved ones and poisoned the green country that was her home. Instead, she has chosen simply to remember.

Observer intern Emily Pyle grew up on a (presumably) non-atomic farm in Oklahoma.

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Published at 12:00 am CST