This scenic sepia-toned photograph of Rattlesnake Mountain in eastern Washington state followed our family around as we settled near various nuclear sites where dad worked in the atomic industry. It was given to my folks as a going-away present from their Richland bridge club in 1960 as a reminder of the time since 1948 that he worked at Hanford. As the years passed, I would gaze into it to remember the beauty of the desert, the smell of the sagebrush and the wind blowing through the sand. I was only six when we moved from that place and although very young, still retain memories that shaped and formed my psyche even unto this day.
We were a motley crew – seven children and our two parents fit into what was then called a “K” house. We children romped around the neighborhood and had many friends who had a parent that worked out at Hanford. It was a normal experience for us to wave goodbye as they boarded buses that took them out to the site; we did not know what happened out there – it was just a job. The benefits of the job meant that we could go to private school and had enough money to feed all our faces and even some left over to enjoy a vacation each summer. Our concerns as children were not to know what our father did for work, but that his job allowed us to live in a state of middle-class comfort, splashing in the Richland Municipal pool with friends, enjoying the freedom to explore our neighborhood untethered.
Summer 2012 brought back a flood of memories to us all. It was then that we filed a claim to receive benefits under the Dept. of Labor’s “Energy Employee’s Occupational Illness Compensation Program”. In order to qualify for the claim, our dad had to have one of numerous cancers or related diseases associated with radiation and chemical exposures. He had died of rectal cancer at the untimely age of 46. Over the years we speculated about this and the seemingly high number of his old acquaintances that had one or another type of cancer mysteriously show up.
Things that had been filed away in a corner of my mind concerning his early death rose to the surface as I researched evidence to support our claim. So many questions still remain unanswered. What kind and how many exposures did he have? When did they suspect the extent of the exposure and what it had done to not only the employees but also those who lived in this magnificent, wind-swept desert with the mighty Columbia snaking through its belly? A few faded carbon copies of memos he had distributed concerning “incidents” at his building were all I could find about him on the Hanford Declassified Documents website.
I do know that my father firmly believed in the “Atoms for Peace” program of which he was a part – the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes, including the building of reactors for electricity and using nuclear blasts for excavation, such as a sea-level canal in Panama (both of which he was to be involved with during his employment with the Atomic Energy Commission). I would later joke around with friends who were appalled at this latter idea and would mention something about the attitudes of the post-WWII era when science would save us all. I was on the one hand impressed and on the other repulsed by what his industry had done.
I do also know that my anti-nuclear stance, which formulated in college, was shaped by an underlying belief that dad’s employment at nuclear facilities contributed to his early demise. Now, having done research for the EEOICPA claim, I have garnered a new understanding of the work he did and the philosophy that allowed him to place himself in danger in order to support his family and further the ‘progress of mankind’.
I wish I could call you up and talk, dad, and discuss what you did in your job. The missing pieces of the puzzle prove too daunting at times to put together and I must back off from the process, telling myself I am satisfied for now. This comes from knowing that distress over uncovering what has occurred in our country’s nuclear industry can only be countered with a peace that arises from a place of deep content within.
If I were to be able to have that conversation with him now, I believe he would say something like this: “It was an exciting time in history and to be a part of the leading edge of science in this new era was both thrilling and terrifying. We believed science could help carry us to the next uncertain era in our country; after all, it had taken us to the moon, why not use it to solve our problems of energy, transportation and excavation? The fault was in the extreme hubris of those who were not willing to see the potential disastrous results and back off from it once it was begun. It was like opening a Pandora’s box and then being unable to put the lid back on because it was so intriguing.”
It still intrigues mankind; we wish to learn how to operate on this planet without killing each other but utilizing the resources we have in a peaceful way to allow all to benefit. The trick lies in understanding how to foresee the consequences of our actions and be willing to place brakes upon scientific advancement before suffering occurs.
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gains wisdom.”
~ Isaac Asimov