1949 nuclear experiment is ugly legacyof Hanford.
Many of us in the timber-rich Northwest are familiar with such terms as "pulling the green chain" and fresh-cut "green" wood. But how many know the term "Green Run?" Never heard of it? That's because it was a secret.
On Dec. 2, 1949, officials at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington deliberately experimented on residents in the area by releasing raw, irradiated uranium fuel. It was the largest known single incident of intentional radioactive contamination ever. It's come to be known as the Green Run; in this case "green" meant "uncured."
Normally, radiated fuel would be cooled for 83 to 101 days to allow some of the short-lived radioactive materials to decay before releasing those materials into the environment. For this test, officials waited a mere 16 days and did not filter the exhaust.
Over a seven-hour period, 7,780 curies of iodine-131 and 20,000 curies of xenon-133 were released. To put these numbers in perspective, the Three Mile Island accident released between 15 and 24 curies of radioactive iodine. Women and children were evacuated, and milk was impounded.
During the Green Run, Air Force planes measured the deposits of iodine-131 on ground vegetation within a 200- by 40-mile plume that stretched from The Dalles to Spokane. Vegetation samples taken in Kennewick, Wash., revealed nearly 1,000 times the acceptable daily limit of iodine-131.
Citizens in the area routinely accepted unusual practices devised by Hanford officials as natural and patriotic: urine samples were left on porches for pick-up, schoolchildren went through whole-body counter scans, and men in white coats palpated students' throats around the thyroid gland.
As thyroid disease and cancer rates rose among the populations of Richland, Wash., The Dalles, Hermiston and the surrounding countryside, the public began to question the safety of Hanford's practices. They were assured that "not one atom" had ever escaped from Hanford and that it was as "safe as mother's milk." Of course, if mother is contaminated, her breast milk is, too - as is the milk from dairy cattle in the area, the salmon in the river, and vegetables and fruit from the farms and ranches nearby.
With all their collected data, officials had to know the health consequences. And still the deception continued. Press releases recommended iodized salt and trucked-in pasteurized milk, but only as mere suggestions. In fact, all public health records from Hanford were sent only to Walla Walla, Wash., and never recorded at the state Capitol, thus ensuring that health research would not contain damning statistics.
The Green Run was only part of a much larger pattern of contamination. From 1944 to 1957 a total of 724,779 curies of iodine-131 were released into the atmosphere.
Why conduct an experiment such as the Green Run? Were the military and the Atomic Energy Commission trying to develop a method for determining production rates in the Soviet Union? Were Hanford officials attempting to speed up their own production? Or was something more sinister going on?
We may never know, because specific reasons for the experimentation remain classified. It took 37 years for the public to learn anything at all about the Green Run, and only then because grass-roots groups forced the release of documents through the Freedom of Information Act.
According to Michele Gerber, author of "On the Home Front," "...the question of whether the Green Run was a radiological warfare experiment, designed to test harm to foodstuffs and living creatures, is still open."
Hanford continues to pose risks. Radioactive contaminants leak into the water table and the river. Cleanup efforts stall.
Vitrification, the process of turning waste into glass, was supposed to be the answer to the problem. In 2010, a whistle-blower warned that the $12.2 billion plant under construction might be seriously flawed. He was pushed aside for his ethical stand. Recent announcements include the hiring of a new manager to take over the "problem-plagued construction at the Hanford vitrification plant" (Register Guard, Nov. 25).
As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Oregon's Ron Wyden spoke of nuclear weapons production as "the largest, most ultra-hazardous industry of its kind in the world." Wyden's concerns about Hanford continue now that he is in the Senate, and he has traveled to Japan to learn more about the disastrous nuclear plant site at Fukushima.
Today, Dec. 2, is a time to remember the atrocities of the Green Run and renew our call for transparency in the secretive nuclear industry. As we search for viable solutions to our energy needs, we must insist on openness, truth and safety, striving together for real green solutions.