H-Net Review [H-Environment]: Luxton on Pritikin, 'The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice'

Andrew Stewart

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Trisha T. Pritikin.  The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight
for Atomic Justice.  Lawrence  University Press of Kansas, 2020.  
Illustrations. xvi + 348 pp.  $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7006-2904-6.

Reviewed by India Luxton (Colorado State University)
Published on H-Environment (September, 2021)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey

Trisha T. Pritikin's The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight
for Atomic Justice is a remarkable work that sheds light on the lived
experiences of the Hanford plaintiffs, experiences that were greatly
shaped by the nuclear fallout of the Hanford nuclear site in
southeastern Washington State. As radiation is invisible to our
senses, it is easy to mask its existence. The health impacts of
living near Hanford therefore remained contested by government
officials and institutions and industry representatives for decades.
The Hanford Plaintiffs is a story about a community that was
unknowingly exposed to nuclear contamination and radiation for
decades and about officials and industry that let poor management and
legal loopholes proliferate. It is an all-too-common story about an
industry that sought economic gain and military advancement at the
expense of public health. The Hanford Plaintiffs documents the lived
experiences of those affected by Hanford, experiences that remain
only marginally recognized by the government. This book is a must
read for anyone interested in understanding the impacts of nuclear
production and the ways our nuclear history has been shielded from
public consciousness.

Pritikin weaves together a historical account of Hanford's
contamination, highlighting the continued practices of industry and
governmental negligence at the cost of downwinder well-being. What is
particularly novel, and heart wrenching, are the stories of the
plaintiffs themselves. Few studies have been conducted that address
the lived experiences of people living in the shadow of nuclear
production all along the fuel cycle.[1] Too often the voices of those
who bear the brunt of environmental injustices remain unheard.
Pritikin's work fills a gap in the literature through juxtaposing the
lived experiences of Hanford downwinders with the "official" story. A
common thread that unites each plaintiff story is trust in the
government: trust that they were kept safe, trust that they would be
informed if an issue arose, and trust that the area which they called
home was a safe place to reside. Unfortunately, this trust was
misplaced. Years following exposure, each plaintiff suffered from
debilitating health problems that they link to living downwind of
Hanford. And yet these health consequences remain contested and

In each chapter, Pritikin documents key patterns of nuclear testing
and contamination, including the Green Run, which released 5,500
curies of iodide-131 and other fission products, and the continued
failure of the government to inform and warn the public at the
detriment of public health. Parallels between key nuclear events and
the subsequent impact on civilians make for an informative,
accessible, and engaging read. Major thematic points of the book
include narratives of those affected by Hanford, continued
governmental negligence in the pursuit of nuclear production, and the
extensive legal battle to hold Hanford and the government
responsible. Each chapter begins with a historical account of Hanford
practices, provides associated scientific reports and studies, and
concludes with relevant plaintiff stories that trace how these
nuclear events shaped their lives. By juxtaposing Hanford activities
with plaintiff testimonies, the book draws parallels between Hanford
practices and their consequences.

By 1945, scientists at Hanford were well aware of the consequences of
exposure to radioactive isotopes and, in the years following, engaged
in research studies that tracked worker exposure and subsequent
impacts. Children living downwind were also studied. And yet, despite
the increasing rates of cancer and illness in the area, Hanford
routinely released hundreds of harmful radioactive substances into
the environment and failed to alert the public about the potential
health risks. In fact, it took decades for the health risks to be
recognized; a lengthy legal battle culminated in a resolution that
many plaintiffs felt was lacking in justice. Even more alarming is
the lack of scientific studies that documented the impact of living
near Hanford, the dose reconstructions project that asked individuals
to recall diet and lifestyle habits as young children decades later,
and the intense efforts by the government to counter what limited
studies were done that assessed the damage done by Hanford.

While many die immediately from radiation exposure, the health
effects of nuclear exposure persist for years. As radiation illness
is not a specific stand-alone disease, its symptoms present in a
multitude of ways, often many years following toxic exposure. Victims
suffer from delayed health consequences of radiation exposure, which
include elevated rates of cancer, reproductive disorders, tumors, and
abnormal development. Plaintiffs in the Hanford case suffered from a
range of illnesses, including thyroid cancer, Hashimoto's disease,
autoimmune disorders, leukemia, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and
many more. As each plaintiff's story unfolds, it is difficult to not
feel angry about their lives being sacrificed due to nuclear
production and the government's failure to protect civilians from
nuclear fallout. Idyllic childhoods carried dark secrets: playing in
what is now known as nuclear contaminated dirt and water and
consuming a diet of fresh (nuclear-contaminated) milk and locally
grown (in contaminated soil) produce. One example: Michael Helland
spent his childhood in Spokane Valley and was only twenty years old
when doctors discovered papillary thyroid cancer, which ultimately
resulted in the removal of his thyroid. His thyroid cancer was the
beginning of a lifetime of ailments, including ankylosing
spondylitis, which greatly reduced the quality of his life. Michael's
story is one of many highlighted by Pritikin, stories that document
the consequences of government and industry negligence.

Exposure to nuclear contamination not only altered the lives of
plaintiffs but also left a lingering nuclear legacy across familial
generations. Brenda Weaver, another plaintiff, was the daughter of a
World War II veteran, notable given the government farmland program
that provided her father the ability to purchase affordable land in
Eltopia, an area now known for its contaminated nature. Like the
lambs born without eyes in 1953, Weaver's daughter was born with the
same birth defect. These health issues had a lasting impact on the
Weaver family, and more broadly, the countless other individuals who
were unjustly exposed to Hanford's nuclear contamination. Plaintiff
narratives, and the extensive research done by Pritikin, illustrate a
troubling pattern of health consequences at the hands of the

The stories of Hanford downwinders' remind us not only of the
suffering of those who were unwillingly sacrificed but also of what
little has been done in cases of nuclear contamination to address or
legitimate cases of illness. The Hanford story is one nuclear site
out of many; Kristen Iversen's _Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the
Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats_ (2012) and Kate Brown's _Plutopia:
Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American
Plutonium Disasters _(2013) are other key reads for anyone interested
in learning more about nuclear production sites and their
consequences. Pritikin's work is particularly noteworthy as she
documents the stories of twenty-four plaintiffs, providing an avenue
to share their lived experiences.

_The Hanford Plaintiffs_ is a critical step in documenting the
stories of the Hanford plaintiffs and is a must read for anyone
interested in learning more about nuclear production and its lasting
public health implications. This book is well suited for both a
scholarly and more general audience, given its accessible writing
style and its informative documentation of Hanford practices and
their subsequent impacts. Pritikin's work has significant
contributions to understanding our nuclear history and its lasting
toxic legacy. Moreover, this work sheds light on a topic that often
remains out of the domain of public conversation: the sacrifice of
civilians due to governmental negligence. In providing an avenue to
share downwinders' stories, Pritikin highlights the need to hold the
government and corporations accountable for protecting public health
both then and now.

Pritikin's book sheds light on the stories of Hanford downwinders, a
key step in gaining societal recognition. It is when government
actors begin to act on these experiences that we can address toxic
legacies of sites and create a better future for all.


[1]. See, for example, Stephanie A. Malin, _The Price of Nuclear
Power_ (New York: Rutgers University Press, 2015).____

Citation: India Luxton. Review of Pritikin, Trisha T., _The Hanford
Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice_. H-Environment,
H-Net Reviews. September, 2021.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56390

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States