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Pritikin’s Battle with Plutonium

A chat with Trisha Pritikin_author of The Hanford Plaintiffs


In the Fall of 2022, I had made my way through several volumes of excellent non-fictional works about Hanford. At the end of each one, a labyrinthine index directed me further down the rabbit hole of research. Most listed the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the plethora of oral testimonies that put human faces to our nuclear legacy.


The AHF website is where I first laid eyes on Trisha Pritikin, author of The Hanford Plaintiffs and founder of CORE, Consequences of Radiation Exposure a non-profit advocacy and education group. Her book, The Hanford Plaintiffs was on the top of my TBR list (to be read) but I was drawn in by her testimony on the AHF website.


Trisha Pritikin in conversation with the Atomic Heritage Foundation


In her AHF interview, Pritikin recounted her childhood years. Born in Richland, WA in late 1950, young Trisha lived in the shadows of the massive Hanford plutonium plant, fuel for our nuclear arsenal.


(Map of Hanford location from the WA State Dept of Ecology, Richland is northeast of Pasco, closer to Hanford)


Five reactors existed when she was born, and by her adolescence, nine reactors were active around the clock. A graduate of Cal Berkeley and MIT, Pritikin's father, Perry Thompson, was was a safety engineer helping oversee the production of plutonium. Her mother, Lesley, worked in the “stores” as a secretary.


Her mother, Lesley, had suffered one miscarriage, and when she discovered she was pregnant with Trisha, she quit working. (see pages 81-83, The Hanford Plaintiffs)


In a poignant moment in her AHF interview, Pritikin says, “My brother died as a part of a spike in neonatal deaths in the Hanford downwind area. Lots of babies and infants were dying in the late 40s and early 50s. There’s been a little bit of study done on the spike of neonatal deaths, but I’m not sure that they’ve found what the primary cause.”


I stopped the video and sat back in my chair. I had visited Richland the prior June (2023) and spent some time at the “Baby Graves” section of the Richland cemetery. Dozens of grave markers, dated 1948 through 1952, had commemorated stillborn infants and others only a few days old. Another series of stones honored infant deaths in 1957 and then more in the mid-60s, from 1962 through 1965, as if certain times had an ill wind blowing that swept the children along with it.


KSB's shadow on a baby gravestone in Richland cemetery, June 2023


Pritikin was born in late 1950 at Kadlec Hospital (built for the Hanford employees initially) and she recounts how the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy) put a lot of money into keeping the families of Richland happy.


“They wanted to keep the workers happy. There were cultural events, and the schools were really good.” Pritikin smiles as she recalls, “I remember having teachers with Tennessee accents because a lot of them had come from Oak Ridge.” Oak Ridge, located on the Savannah River in Tennessee, was the third major Manhattan Project site in the trifecta of Los Alamos, Hanford, and Oak Ridge. Both of the latter sites produced plutonium for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.


Pritikin goes on, “Great art classes, everything, I loved school.” They lived in an F-house, “basically a two-story box, but it seemed big to me.” She explains how today the historic alphabet houses have small signs commemerating the planned community built in service to the war effort. (My protagonists in Tangles live in an A-house, the two-story duplex model, many of which line the streets of Richland today.)


An A-house duplex in Richland, WA June 2023


Pritikin attended Sacajawea Elementary School. In 1960, when Trisha was ten years old, General Electric moved Trisha’s father and his family to San Jose, California. As the anti-nuclear protest movements grew, most nuclear projects were being canceled in the U.S. Her father, a lifelong employee of GE (the contractor operating Hanford, along with multiple other atomic energy sites worldwide) was eventually transferred overseas.


In the early 60s, Trisha’s father was sent to Spain, and they made their home in Madrid. Her father directed the construction of a reactor in a tiny town called Vitoria in the north of Spain. “At that time,” she recalls. “Spain was under Franco, living under a dictatorship. When Franco drove by in his motorcade, you’d see Guardia Civil with guns on tops of buildings.”


Franco on presidential palace balcony in Spain, circa 1960s


Trisha had been born with deformed knee joints (severe trochlear dysplasia) and suffered various ineffective surgeries throughout her childhood to help her walk. But at age eighteen her weight began fluctuating wildly, with no change in her diet. She began experiencing upset stomachs (gastrointestinal distress), her hair became brittle, and her menstrual cycles stopped.


The Spanish doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong, so her parents sent her back to the U.S. for healthcare. She lived with her grandmother in Spokane,. Eventually, Pritikin’s menstrual cycles returned but she suffered constant fatigue. She suspects the birth defects and her lifelong health issues are related to the release of radioactive material by Hanford in the first eight years of her life. Airborne radioactive material traveled “downwind,” throughout Eastern Washington, northern Oregon, western Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia. Radioactive effluent, dumped from the reactors into the Columbia River, flowed for 250 miles to the mouth of the Columbia and into the Pacific Ocean.


Pritikin, who lives in Berkeley California, explains the milk pathway to the AHF interviewer. “Babies in Richland and surrounding communities were fed milk that contained radioiodine as a result of the releases from the Hanford nuclear plant. The secret releases, mainly I-131 came out of the stacks and landed on pasture lands. The cows and goats consumed it and the isotope entered the milk supply.” Jim Thomas, a Hanford scientist, wrote about the pathway in the late 1940s, but the reports were not made public.


Photo credit: miikka-luotio-CDpsQpts_XE-unsplash


The latency period for Pritikin was in-utero and childhood exposure until age eighteen. Her thyroid began to shut down causing all of her symptoms. “I got really sick, but no one knew why. No one knew what had happened at Hanford until 1986 when the classified documents were released.” DOE released the documents due to public pressure from the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement.

Pritikin pushed through college, despite bizarre illnesses – cat-scratch fever that caused a large tumor on her neck, overwhelming fatigue, and dizziness.


She was halfway through law school at Hastings at the University of California San Francisco, when she collapsed in a meeting with a mentor. She was rushed to the hospital with what they thought was a cardiac event, but the ER doctors theorized later that her esophagus had contracted because of its proximity to her inflamed thyroid.


From there, her health deteriorated. She went through ups and downs of autoimmune thyroiditis, terrible headaches, sweats, and shakes (symptoms of hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism) until her thyroid finally died.


“I’d have to leave class, miss parts of the lectures,” she recalls. The doctors still didn’t know the I-131 releases from Hanford had killed her thyroid. But Pritikin was determined to graduate law school and she did, despite the debilitating illness.


She smiles as she says she married a fellow student in 1985. “We’re still married. He’s my best friend.” Her father-in-law was Nathan Pritikin, the ‘diet’ guy, He dove in to help solve the mystery of Pritikin’s symptoms but contracted leukemia before he could solve the mystery. Trisha and her husband tried to conceive, but could not, and the doctors didn’t know what was wrong.


In 1988, Trisha visited her grandmother in Spokane and saw an article in the Spokesman-Review, written by Karen Dorn Steele, who broke the story on the Hanford downwind releases in the 1940s.


Karen Dorn Steele, Award-winning journalist and investigative reporter


At first, Trisha thought, “Great, I dodged that bullet, being born in 1950 after all of that.” But she discovered later that the releases had ratcheted up in the 50s and she realized that radiation exposure had likely caused her health issues.


A blood test revealed a hyperthyroid condition, and the endocrinologist told her she should be in a coma by now—only her sheer determination had kept her going. The doctor put her on a synthetic thyroid hormone which she has to take for the rest of her life.


In our chat on December 18, 2023, she laments, “It’s so hard dealing with a situation that nobody has heard of. In Nevada, you had mushroom clouds, fallout, and a lot of attention to that area. So people knew that something was happening.” She shakes her head. “At Hanford, it was just silent. You couldn’t see or smell anything [despite the fact] the release of millions of curies. It’s hard to compare Hanford to what was found at the Nevada Test Site, or at Trinity (the first atomic bomb test). But I do know that the Hanford downwinders ended up with the same radiogenic cancers as those exposed at the other sites.”


Trisha Pritikin and KSB in conversation, via Zoom, December 2023


Pritikin went to the medical library to try to find answers about her illness and pregnancy and essentially, the Lifespan Study of the atomic bomb survivors said, “Don’t worry” and that her fetus would not be affected by the I-131. A short while later, she became pregnant with her daughter.


Pritikin decided to convene a meeting of other downwinders in Oakland, California in 1989. About a hundred folks came, along with renowned scientist John Gofman and Tom Foulds, the Spokane attorney, one of several who led the downwinder’s personal injury lawsuits. Many of the 100 in attendance signed onto the litigation filed in 1991.


The number of plaintiffs was reduced from over 5000 to around 3000. “I’m a lawyer, so the shrinking of the plaintiff pool,” she says, was no surprise to her.  She explains. “A couple reasons: if their disease has no link to ‘low dose exposure’ established by epidemiologic studies, they were dropped. The people with thyroid problems and some of the cancers from the river, their cases were the strongest (supported by other studies).”


“The next problem was,” she continues. “The plaintiffs and defendants had different sets of dose calculations for each plaintiff.  The Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project (HEDR) doses were eventually used in the litigation.


I ask, even though I’ve read a ton on the HEDR (Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction), “How so?”


Pritikin elaborates. ”If an individual’s HEDR wasn’t high enough, the causal link between exposure and cancer in that person could not be proven and their case was dismissed. More plaintiffs out the door.” 


This type of case is called a toxic tort: when people are exposed to something toxic, there is typically a latency period following exposure. A delay before the illness becomes evident. Winning, or losing, a case of this kind rests on the ability to prove the causal link years after exposure.


“More probably than not” is the standard for toxic torts. The Chernobyl studies and the Marshall Island studies showed links between radiation exposure and both thyroid cancers and leukemia. The Nevada test site studies (1951-1958) also showed links to the same cancers, and plaintiff attorneys, including Tom Foulds based their cases on those findings, along with copious medical records of the plaintiffs.


Tom Foulds, a lead attorney in the Hanford personal injury lawsuits


Beginning in 1991, the litigation ran for twenty-four years, possibly the longest toxic tort litigation ever in the state of Washington. Six bellwether cases were chosen, and only two (both thyroid cancer victims) received or won recovery in jury trials.


And, even more interesting, the contractors, DuPont, GE, and eventually Westinghouse, running a potentially hazardous site, were all indemnified by their U.S. Government contracts, ensuring their defense against any personal injury lawsuits. The U.S. Government attorneys defending the contractors had an 80-million dollar budget of taxpayers’ money. Local news developed a special Hanford logo for news coverage.


News broadcast banner with Columbia River in background


“They used a ‘scorched earth’ defense,” Pritikin recalls. “They were [determined to defeat the downwinders] no matter what.”


This was a direct contradiction to the intent of the Price-Anderson Act. The act was meant, in part, to provide prompt compensation for injuries from exposure to both radiation and other toxic chemicals in regions where such facilities existed). Eventually, despite their dedication to the cause for years, the plaintiff attorneys ran out of money, driving what Pritikin calls “a premature settlement.” One that did not meaningfully compensate the plaintiffs. “Most settlement amounts were so meager they did not even come close to covering plaintiffs’ healthcare costs or even drug prescriptions,” she laments.


I ask, “What drew you to the Plaintiffs’ book project? Was there an ah-ha moment you had that made you write the book?”


“I was afraid that everybody would forget about what happened to the people downwind of Hanford,” she says.


Once the litigation ended in 2015, Pritikin worked with attorneys Tom Foulds and Dick Eymann to send out a letter to the plaintiffs, explaining “I was like them, and I wanted to tell their stories.”

Stories, that in their simplicity are deeply moving. I could not put the book down.


The result was The Hanford Plaintiffs, published in 2020, just as Covid hit.


KSB's well worn copy of The Hanford Plaintiffs


Despite having appearances set up all over the Pacific NW and Canada, Pritikin’s only public in-person event was her book launch at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane just before Washington State’s shutdown due to the pandemic. Book tour events were at first postponed, then canceled as the pandemic wore on.


Pritikin rakes her hands through her hair. “It was the weirdest experience.”

Auntie’s bookstore logo, Spokane WA


Our conversation moves to the various avenues that exist in legislation for folks to get justice, or at least some compensation.


Pritikin’s tone is even as she says, “My current effort is encouraging people to think about all the different Manhattan Project and Cold War production (testing and waste sites) as one, rather than focusing only on their site.”


I wonder out loud how she can maintain a civil tone after all the literal trials and tribulations.


She explains, “At some atomic testing, production, and waste sites there were documented radiation releases. We must determine years of release.”


“Then what?” I ask.


“People who lived downwind of these sites for a minimum specified period (during times of documented radiation release) and who develop radiogenic cancers, should be eligible for compensation without having to prove the dose to which they were exposed.”


“In layman’s terms, which cancers?” I ask.


“The list of recognized radiogenic cancers are defined in the nuclear worker compensation laws.”


“Leukemia? Thyroid? Lymphoma?” I venture.


“Yes, but the government did not monitor civilian exposures so as not to alarm the public,” she says.


Pritikin via Zoom, December 2023


She lets that sink in, before continuing. “Nuclear workers at many former Manhattan Project and Cold War production and testing sites are given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to compensation for radiogenic cancer—they are not required to prove their exposure dose in order to obtain compensation.”


In the EEOICPA (Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act), they are defined as within “special exposure cohorts.”


Pritikin continues. “Innocent civilians—especially children—should be given the benefit of the doubt just as the workers.” A wistful smile crosses her face.  “We were just kids.”


An infant Trisha in her father’s arms, her mother left


Downwinders of Trinity (the world’s first atomic bomb test) and folks in northern Montana and Idaho, got higher exposures than the population of counties that are currently eligible under the  Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. RECA Passed in 1990, but the National Cancer Institute had started a study of fallout exposures long before 1990.


“But they (the NCI) sat on the results.”  Pritikin grimaces.  “Instead of telling Utah Senator Orinn Hatch (the primary congressional sponsor of the RECA legislation) wait a minute, these other areas in the north have higher exposures than the counties you have deemed eligible for compensation. You gotta rewrite fix the map.” 


She shakes her head. “The NCI sat on the information for whatever reasons, and it didn’t come until years later, clearly showing the other areas of exposure.”


“So every year,” Pritikin goes on. “Some Congressional representative (in areas of high fallout) is motivated to create a rider–usual on a bill working its way through the house–to include their particular constituents in RECA.” Pritikin smooths her hands over her head.


“The [most recent rider] included Trinity and high exposure counties in Montana and Idaho, along with Coldwater Creek in Missouri (a nuclear waste repository). This particular bill made it through the Senate, but never made it to a vote in the House. This happens over and over.”


Joe Biden addresses Congress at State of the Union, 2024


Pritikin wants every nuclear site included in either RECA or a NDCA (a National Downwinders Compensation Act). Include the test sites in Alaska, along with all other sites referenced above.

“Someone in Congress needs to say: we need a national plan.”


She reiterates, “It just doesn’t work to base compensation of radiation exposed civilians on reconstructed exposure doses (HEDR). Workers at most production and testing sites were very carefully monitored while civilians were not monitored, for the most part, at all.”


She speaks to employee records lost over time. “Workers are given the benefit of the doubt when their exposure records have been lost. As members of Special Exposure Cohorts, their exposures are presumed to have caused their cancers if they worked at the site for a minimum number of years and if their cancer is on the list of cancers recognized as radiogenic under federal nuclear worker compensation Law.”


Pritikin feels that Price-Anderson should be amended, to level the playing field for radiation exposure plaintiffs. Either cap the amount of taxpayer dollars available to the defense, or equally fund both sides. “People who were injured downwind or downriver should be compensated like the workers,” she says. (Think EEOICPA again.)


She is thankful for Tom Foulds, Dick Eymann, and the other plaintiff attorneys, and their work over two-plus decades of litigation. “But new downwinders are being created by the cleanup,” she says.


Doctors have found minute particles of plutonium in the workers’ lungs from the demolition of the PFP (Plutonium Finishing Plant). And workers at the tank farm are inhaling radioactive and chemical toxins, much of it unknown, unnamed.


Pritikin’s voice holds a warning, as she says, “We don’t know the long-term effects of those exposures.” And the toll continues in the offspring of the downwinders. “Second and third generations are being born with compromised autoimmune systems.”


CORE, the organization she founded with other downwinders and academics, advocated for a museum and archives to memorialize the human toll of Hanford. Displays telling the story of the health effects of plutonium production and general exposure to radiation on both workers and the general population. (Think African American Museum and its mind-bending displays.)


Educating the public was CORE’s main focus. Their efforts to have exhibits describing the human toll of Hanford placed at the B Reactor, part of the Manhattan Project Historic National Park were unsuccessful despite mediation provided by the McCain National Center for Environmental Conflict Resolution. Multiple discussions were held about the three national park sites of the Manhattan Project (the labs at Los Alamos, the B Reactor at Hanford, and the Clinton Engineer Works in Oakridge) housing a “post-narrative display.”


The Udall Foundation houses the McCain Center for Environmental Conflict Resolution


“We just wanted a spot on the tour. Doesn’t matter how large, just a corner where we could have materials and possibly a docent who would honestly answer folks’ questions about harm from radiation exposure.”


CORE had gotten fairly receptive responses to this idea from the head of the National Park Service (which is tasked with co-management of the B Reactor museum site at Hanford), and then, suddenly, she was gone. A new person popped into the job.


The talks ended, and Trisha, exhausted from leading CORE, passed leadership onto a “great guy,” she says, smiling. “But now he is too busy too, so we are dissolving CORE.”


“It’s a big loss.  There wasn’t another nonprofit doing anything like this.” (Note: The National Park Service did put something on their website referencing health effects, but that isn’t what Pritikin and her group wanted. They wanted a spot on the tour.)


I reiterate that we have been talking for over an hour and I don’t want to keep her, but I ask if she has any last words regarding the Hanford cleanup or current workers all over the U.S.


Pritikin’s voice has the even keel of a seasoned warrior. “In Richland, you are living next to huge tanks with unstable radioactive waste that could blow up at any time. Fallout would shower the area.”


I note that there has already been one such minor incident (about 3 years ago).


Pritikin says, “People who live there have to have certain mentality to feel they are safe, and to raise their kids there.”


I ask, “What is that mentality? Denial?”


Pritikin nods, but says, “Kate Brown (author of Plutopia) and I went into 3-Eyed Fish (Wine Bar & Kitchen) after the court case (In re Hanford) was settled. We asked our waitress what she knew about Hanford. She’d gone to high school in Richland, but really did not have a clue about what happened there.”


The 3-Eyed Fish Wine Bar and Kitchen, Richland WA 2024


“And all these young people that are not educated to the situation, and those who are doing the cleanup – and all the scientists they’ve brought in (Richland has the highest population of PhDs in the country).” She shakes her head. “It’s an odd mix of people now compared to the war years. And a lot of them do not know what happened to all of us downwind.”


She spoke of how a ‘white-wash’ had always been part of the narrative. Post-war brochures put out by the DOE cited the Nevada test site and other MP sites as safe now. “Administrative memos at all MP locations were always downplaying the danger.”


“And now,” she exhales. “If you are going to have nuclear power, the same technology that processed plutonium, you have to speak a certain way about it to have people accept nuclear power as safe.”


In a final thought, Pritikin reiterates the need to cover the cleanup at Hanford. It is far from being accomplished and multiple strategies have proven ineffective, including the initial vitrification processes tested.


“I feel like if someone could write about the cleanup and the new workers. They are the new downwinders….that would be good.”


“A meaningful thing to work on,” I agree. Andy Kifer – are you listening?

 

 Source Notes:

Auntie's bookstore https://www.auntiesbooks.com 

See more on EEOICPA at https://nuclearworkers.org/

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