The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice
by Trisha T. Pritkin
University Press of Kansas

"During the Manhattan Project and Cold War era, nuclear weapons production and testing by US government exposed many Americans to harmful levels of radioactive fallout."

A revealing book comes to the rescue when people are denied their opportunity to be heard in court, and people who were hurt finally get a chance to break the silence. Clearly, many American lives have been negatively impacted by the development of nuclear power, but their voices have not been heard until now. Here are the stories of twenty-four people who endured debilitating illnesses due to exposure to radiation, I-131, plutonium-239, and all the toxins related to creating nuclear bombs and energy.

Ordinary people who grew up and worked downwind from the Hanford nuclear facility in southeastern Washington State along the Columbia River developed allergies, asthma, hyperthyroidism, multiple forms of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal meningitis, and other illnesses. It has been their challenge to convince the government and the public that these ailments were related to exposure to invisible toxins and nuclear fallout. This book openly discusses how the government covered what it knew about the relationship between exposure and health problems. Not only do the poignant stories shared here reveal the truth, but readers also gain an idea that the classified nature of these facilities is harmful to public health.

The narrative’s strength is found in its enabling readers to listen to these stories and bear witness to the price humanity pays to fight over nuclear supremacy. The hope is that today’s leadership transcends greed. But where leadership fails, there are ordinary people who refuse to be silent and step forward to protect humanity.

The complexities of issues surrounding plutonium processing plants are that the toxins are invisible. When the locals witnessed the mushroom clouds, how could they predict the devastating impact? How could they know their milk would be laced with poison? The plaintiffs were made to feel like they were crazy. But intriguingly, this book takes a neutral approach, recording their stories so that history can be the judge and elevate those affected from ostracized to heard.

One government thyroid disease study claimed that living downwind from the Hanford facility did not cause cancer. However, story after story of people who have lived with horrific ailments suggests otherwise. Listening to their stories carefully welcomes critical questions. When government interests outweigh care for public health, how can one seek justice? Researchers conducted these experiments under the initial assumption that nuclear fallout was as ubiquitous as sunshine. Yet comparative studies of the effects of I-131 on sheep, fish, and other wildlife revealed gruesome deaths were directly related to exposure.

The author's book pulls no punches, nor does it shy away from uncomfortable truths. It reveals that after the Department of Energy refused to be held accountable, those who lived downwind of nuclear facilities tried to file personal injury lawsuits in state court against private contractors who worked on atomic bomb production and testing. But these private contractors avoided litigation, too. How else could these plaintiffs seek justice? One of the best things about this book is that it seeks to uncover what some in power have tried to bury. Still, there is plenty of information about atomic testing programs that are still classified today. Claims filed under the FTCA are heard by a federal court judge sitting without a jury. When the reality looks this grim, though, it’s heartening to know that journalists, ministers, concerned citizens, lawyers, and plaintiffs are sharing their stories and seeking atomic justice for all.

A 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Short-List book and First Horizon Award Finalist

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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