Archive for 1998

Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal by Michael D’Antonio

4 June 1998
Categories: From the armchair

coverWritten in a narrative style, with some reconstructed scenes for effect and continuity, Atomic Harvest documents the lives of several people who lived near and worked at the Hanford Atomic Reservation in eastern Washington state, where the majority of the United States plutonium supply was produced and refined.

One of these people is Tom Bailie, who grew up on a farm just across the Columbia River (and downwind) from Hanford. At the age of four Tom was inexplicably and severely paralysed and only recovered after living for several months in an iron lung. Tom recalls the childhood sight of men in uniform carrying Geiger counters and shovels, who would occasionally walk slowly through the Bailie wheat fields—and sometimes dig up shovelsful of dirt to place in protective bags, which they would take with them. When asked, the men would always say that it was a routine inspection and that no danger existed. Their assurances are perhaps belied by the fact that as an adult, Tom found himself sterile—and the unwitting down-home figurehead in a media frenzy as people began to realise that all was not well at Hanford.

Casey Ruud was a quality assurance inspector at Hanford who stumbled upon numerous hazardous conditions at Hanford. When management ignored his audits, Ruud leaked information to the press. Following a Congressional hearing at which he testified, Ruud was fired from his job at Hanford.

Karen Dorn Steele was a local reporter who discovered, among other things, documents that mentioned a secret experiment at Hanford known as the Green Run. In 1949, as part of the Green Run experiment, over 5000 curies of radioactive iodine-131 and xenon-133 were released without warning into the atmosphere. By comparison, the notorious Three Mile Island accident of 1978 released a “mere” 15 curies of I-131 into the environment.

This is only one example. The litany of toxic problems at Hanford is long and frightful. Hanford is likely the most polluted site in the western world, unless one of the other sites in the nuclear complex—Rocky Flats, Savannah River, Fernald, and Oak Ridge—is worse. Each of these sites have had a long history of inadequate safeguards and disastrous near-catastrophes. Today, Hanford no longer produces plutonium, yet it employs many more people than it ever did during its decades of operation. These people are working on environmental cleanup—a multi-billion-dollar enterprise that is still in an experimental phase. Someday the lessons learned about toxic cleanup at Hanford will be salable to the world, to clean up the radioactive cesspools (especially in the former Soviet Union) that the Cold War generated.

Atomic Harvest is an intriguing, frightening book. Many of the events surrounding the demise of the nuclear complex in the 1980s and ’90s escaped my attention when they occurred—and it leaves me wondering just how much the media really told us at the time. (It also makes me wonder what we’re not being told today—for example, no one seems to want to mention the notion that India’s latest nuclear tests may well have released radioactive gases into the atmosphere.) It is a scathing report on the dangerous secrecy, born in the Manhattan Project and mutated by the Cold War, under which the nuclear complex operated. It also brings to light the unflinchingly callous attitude of the U.S. Government toward the health and safety of its people.

In general I found Atomic Harvest to be an interesting, informative, and eye opening read. I have a slight qualm about its accuracy, however. In two places the book makes reference to a subject about which I know a great deal—the U.S. space program—but gives glaringly inaccurate information. Astronaut Eugene Cernan’s name is spelled “Sirnan,” and the ill-fated launch of Space Shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986, is said to have taken place in “early January.” My concern is that if the book flubs little pieces of data I know are wrong, how much stock can I place in other portions of the book where I know little about the subject, but am eager to learn?

This gripe aside, but allowing for a small level of inaccuracy in the details, in general Atomic Harvest is forceful, gripping, and a valid indictment of Cold War lies and attitude. Not only did the Cold War cost the United States alone something on the order of $5 trillion—and create a world-wide economic disaster—but the resulting environmental cleanup it engendered will take far longer and cost far more than the Cold War ever did. Thousands of “Hanford downwinders” who suffered and died from cancer, thyroid disease, and myriad other ailments are still paying the price of their government’s policies. Unfortunately, we are all downwinders.

(Crown Publishers, 1993.  Note: this book is out of print.)

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” by Richard P. Feynman with Ralph Leighton

26 May 1998
Categories: From the armchair

coverI recently pulled off the shelves a book I have long considered to be one of my favourites and had the joy of a quick re-read. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (Adventures of a Curious Character) is a collection of autobiographical anecdotes compiled and edited by Ralph Leighton, a long-time friend and drumming partner of one of the 20th Century’s brightest and most unique thinkers, Richard Phillips Feynman.

Feynman is a hero of mine, and this book captures much of his intellect, humour, and irreverence. Feynman was, first and foremost, a brilliant physicist. His work in quantum electrodynamics garnered him the 1965 Nobel Prize, and his “Feynman diagrams” are nowadays a staple of subatomic particle theory. But that merely scratches the surface. He worked in the theoretical division of the Manhattan Project and contributed substantially to the development of the atomic bomb, the first test of which he witnessed first-hand. He often picked up hobbies just for fun, only to find a curious aptitude for them. For example, while in Brazil on a visiting professorship, his knack for drumming led him to join a mariachi band, until he was considered one of the best drummers around. He enjoyed drawing, and though he used a pen name to distance his art from his fame as a physicist, sold many of his portraits.

Feynman also had a storyteller’s knack, especially when telling tales about himself. Of course every story suffers slightly from the first-person perspective: we know what Feynman was thinking at the time, but have no idea what those around him are really thinking of his actions. He played a lot of games, both mental and social, and one wonders how this affected those around him. A good example is in the chapter titled “You Just Ask Them?” An unabashed womanizer who enjoyed hanging around in strip clubs, Feynman learns from a friend that the way to get a woman to go home with you is to treat her like dirt. If you buy her anything—even a drink or a cigarette—before asking her to sleep with you, the lesson goes, you’ll get nowhere. He discovers, at least on one occasion, that not only is this lesson factual, but that it even works on “nice girls” (as opposed to “bar girls,” who seem to fall somewhere lower on the morality scale). He then throws the lesson aside, saying merely that he didn’t like to do things that way.

Though this may seem to be a callous attitude toward other people, Feynman seems never to have meant it as such. His scientist’s mind provided him with a level of detachment that allowed him to play games and work puzzles without caring much about the reactions of others. (A knowing comment from his third wife provides the title of the sequel to SYJ, What Do You Care What Other People Think?) At Los Alamos, Feynman gained a reputation as a master safecracker, simply because he took the time to puzzle out the inner workings of the combination lock file cabinets and had a small “bag of tricks” to open them. He established a nameless friendship with the resident locksmith, hoping to learn from a real lock “expert,” but when the locksmith finally learned that his new friend is Feynman, the smith’s reaction was that of a novice meeting the master.

So much of Feynman’s personal philosophy comes through in the book. Though never stated explicitly, he seems to be saying “Learn all you can, have fun, play games, take risks, and don’t worry about what other people think.” Late in his life he served on the Presidential Commission investigating the Challenger explosion (as told in WDYCWOPT). Feynman refused to sit still for the standard management explanations and meetings, and instead visited with the engineers and others on the front line of the work. It was Feynman who brought a piece of booster o-ring, a small clamp, and a glass of ice water to a hearing, to demonstrate visibly and clearly what the problem with the boosters was. While the rest of the commission wrote a gentle, “NASA knows it did something wrong and is working to fix it” report, Feynman wrote his own set of scathing conclusions that wound up being relegated to an appendix at the back of the thick, two-volume publication.

He concluded it with words that have deep implications for all of modern living: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”