Written 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.)