Aggressive Regionalism: Texts

9. Herbert M. Parker, "Ground Contamination Problem" and "Status of Ground Contamination Problem"

H. M. Parker to D.F. Shaw, “Control of Ground Contamination,” August 19, 1954, on file as document HW-32808 in the U.S. Department of Energy Public Reading Room, library of Washington State University, Tri-Cities campus.

H. M. Parker, “Status of Ground Contamination Problem,” Sept. 15, 1954, on file as document HW-33068 in the U.S. Department of Energy Public Reading Room, library of Washington State University, Tri-Cities campus.

[Between January and September of 1954, unintended releases of radioactive ruthenium contaminated a substantial portion of the Hanford reservation. The particles went into the atmosphere and winds carried them as far as Spokane. Herbert M. Parker, the chief health physicist at the site, was given responsibility for assessing the problem and suggesting measures to protect people from the danger. In two memoranda, Parker wrote out his concerns, which extended far beyond the immediate health effects of the pollution. He focused his concerns primarily on the reservation, and nearby towns, fields, and pastures.]

H. M. Parker to D. F. Shaw, “Control of Ground Contamination,” August 19, 1954

In the last few months, significant particulate contamination originating in the Redox process has affected substantial portions of the Hanford reservation. The [Atomic Energy] Commission is already aware of the measures taken to rehabilitate regions in which construction work is required to be performed. Decontamination of areas required for use by operations is also being performed.

There remain large areas of the reservation in which particulate contamination exceeds levels that can be considered unequivocally safe and access to which is normally required by selected forces only. The principal contaminant is radioruthenium of which the predominant isotope has a half-life of one year. Solution of the problem by decay is entirely different from our earlier experience with I131 [radioactive iodine]. In the absence of weathering of the contamination, the problem may persist in part for several years.  Another troublesome characteristic, not yet fully investigated, is the apparent tendency of the present combination to be redistributed by wind action.

[Parker said that Hanford had two options. Rather than decontaminating the polluted areas, it limited access to about half of the site by erecting about 17,000 signs warning people to stay away from contaminated areas.] This control program, although normal in function and principle, is more extensive than personnel in the reservation have experienced.  The [public] relations problem will be a severe one, and educational efforts to assure ready compliance without excitation of undue alarm will be needed. . . .

It is our present intent to attempt the necessary orientation without public release of information. However, the program is so large that publicity may be unavoidable. A suitable press story will be prepared so that outside questions could be answered, if necessary.

H. M. Parker, “Status of Ground Contamination Problem,” September 15, 1954

As a graphic illustration of the severity of the current deposition [of radioactive ruthenium particles] at off-reservation locations, one can picture the entire population of Richland lying unclothed on the ground for one day. There would be about 25 identifiable particles in contact with skin; not more than three would be in an activity type range [i.e. a level of radioactivity] that could produce a significant effect; not more than one would probably produce an effect [3]. [The effect of one hot particle touching human skin, according to Parker, would not have been too damaging.] At the worst, there would be a small necrotic area, perhaps comparable with the effect of plunging a lighted match head to the skin. My best guess is that this would not happen in one day’s contact with the hottest known off-site particle [7]. [The actual impact had been measured on pigs, with reassuring results according to Parker.] Pig skin and human skin are sufficiently alike that if the pig can wear a 400 mrad/hr particle for five days, I would be willing to wear one for one day [5].

[Hanford scientists attempted to measure the impact of radioactive ruthenium on crops and livestock in the vicinity of Hanford.] Ground contamination was found in orchards and field crop areas. Crops tested include 2500 peaches, 2 lugs of plums, 2 lugs of grapes, 1500 apples, 40 ears of corn and 40 tomatoes. No particulate contamination whatsoever was detected.  Crops from affected areas have been allowed to proceed to market. 

We have considered the hazard to cattle and other livestock. On the Wahluke Slope [across the Columbia River, north of the main Hanford facilities], cattle droppings are demonstrably contaminated. However, the available contamination should not present an appreciable direct hazard to livestock. As a secondary hazard to man, one needs consider only kidney and liver. We were interested in obtaining such organs from local stock, but could not do it without risk of exciting too much comment. As kidney and liver are a low percentage of the normal diet, it seems safe to assume that the hazard to man would be insignificant [6].

[Parker concluded that the risks presented by the pollution varied by place.]  Off-site, the cost of complete removal of particles is prohibitive….For direct protection of personnel, normal personal hygiene would seem to provide adequate protection. This supports our feeling that nothing is to be gained by informing the public of a risk that, off-site, is probably non-existent. The best protection is already being utilized [9]. On the reservation there appears to be the potential for uncomfortable superficial injury to tissue. No evidence of such injury has been noted [12]. 

[Finally, Parker discussed the matter of “Information to the Public.”] It seems to be agreed that if a demonstrable hazard to the pubic exists, appropriate releases should be made officially by the AEC, and in effect jointly by the [Atomic Energy] Commission and the [General Electric] Company. As an intermediate step it may be determined that state pollution officials should be advised. We have previously had excellent cooperation from this source in matters of Columbia River contamination. This point will be decided during Dr. Bugher’s visit. We are wholeheartedly in favor of such a communication.

There is a definite probability that information, or rather misinformation, on the off-site condition will leak to the public in the near future. Not all the residents will be as relaxed as the one who was recently quoted as saying, “Living in Richland is ideal because we breathe only tested air.” To prepare for adverse questions, a suitable press release is being developed to be held in readiness.

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