Where did you grow up? The answer to that question has been the most significant information in my medical history.
I spent the first 18 years of my life downriver and downwind from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington State. Beginning in the mid-1940s, when Hanford’s eight nuclear reactors went on line, my family, neighbors and those around us found with growing alarm and confusion that our formerly healthy lives were deteriorating. My community was struck with high rates of thyroid cancers, miscarriages, birth defects and many other anomalous medical conditions.
It took more than 40 years to verify our suspicion that the federal government had contaminated the air, water and food chain throughout the Northwest. In 1986, thousands of activists were finally granted a Freedom of Information Act request. Despite repeated government denial, 19,000 pages of operating documents confirmed that hundreds of thousands of curies of radiation were released from Hanford over years of operation.
The revelation finally explained numerous medical events that took place early in my life. It answered why men in lab coats came to my junior high health class to palpate the throat of every student as if it were part of the curriculum. I understood why my thyroid gland had quit functioning at age 11 and developed a tumor the size of a grapefruit 18 years later. I no longer considered my mysteriously fractured ankle and my classmates’ numerous broken bones to be normal childhood mishaps.
If you lived anywhere near one of America’s eight nuclear facilities — Richland, Wash.; Los Alamos, N.M.; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Savannah River, S.C.; Paducah, Ky.; Denver, Colo.; Idaho Falls, Idaho; or Amarillo, Texas — you may well have had similar experiences.
One of the few agencies that monitor and hold these nuclear sites accountable for rule-abiding operations is under attack internally. In a recently exposed secret letter, Sean Sullivan, director of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, urged the Trump administration to disband the board or drastically slash its budget.
This independent board has acted as an important watchdog over the nuclear weapons complex since Congress chartered it in 1988, and it is a transparent, public source of information.
It provides weekly reports including contractors’ mistakes that may jeopardize the safety of 40,000 workers and nearby communities. It functions as an essential check and balance between the government and the nuclear industry.
Sullivan’s action, undertaken without the knowledge of the four DNFSB members, reflects the dangerous pattern of secrecy by which our nuclear weapons facilities have always operated.
A second attack on the work of the board came from Frank Klotz, an undersecretary for the Department of Energy. He proposed eliminating public access to those written safety reports. As administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Klotz contended that media coverage of safety lapses was counterproductive to the mission of the NNSA.
A former deputy assistant secretary at that same Department of Energy, Bob Alvarez, exposed the ongoing culture of secrecy when he observed, “the logic behind this is that what the public doesn’t know can’t hurt us, and there’s nothing to be gained by the public knowing what we’re doing.”
We live under a president who wants to see drastic growth in our nuclear stockpile; on top of his regular issuance of bombastic threats, the president has unilateral discretion over the arsenal’s use. We are at the most critical moment in nuclear history since the Cuban Missile Crisis — and now is prime time to strengthen, rather than abolish or curtail, agencies such as the DNFSB.
My downwinder medical history, and that of thousands of other Americans who grew up near nuclear plants, is evidence of the debilitating health effects of radiation. My experiences speak clearly to the absolute need to keep the DNFSB engaged in its significant role insisting on transparency and regulating safe operations at all eight U.S. nuclear weapons facilities.
In recognition of this necessity, I encourage citizens to call Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Peter DeFazio to urge them to speak up in Congress and oppose disbanding the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. This independent nuclear watchdog must continue its vital work.
Patricia Hoover of Eugene, an anti-nuclear and environmental activist for 27 years, is a member of Women’s Action for New Directions and a Hanford downwinder. She wrote this essay with Susan Cundiff of Eugene, who serves on the national board of WAND and leads Oregon WAND. This op-ed first appeared in the (Eugene) Register-Guard.