The Manhattan Project

Michele Gerber's Interview (2018)

Printer-friendly version

Michele Gerber's Interview (2018)

Michele Gerber is the author of "On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site" and served as the official Hanford Site historian. In this interview, she discusses her role as a local consultant on the Center for Disease Control’s research about the potential health effects of emissions from Hanford on residents. Gerber also describes her efforts to declassify the Hanford site documents. Additionally, she talks about how the United States learned the USSR acquired the bomb and explains the negative health implications of the Green Run test. She also discusses other sources of environmental pollution at Hanford, including in the soil and the Columbia River, and the health impacts on Downwinders.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 11, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Richland
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: It is September 11, 2018. I’m in Richland, Washington, Cindy Kelly. I have with me Michele Gerber, and what I’d like to ask her to do is to tell us her full name and spell it.

Michele Gerber: Michele Stenehjem Gerber. M-i-c-h-e-l-e. S-t-e-n-e-h-j-e-m. Gerber, G-e-r-b-e-r.

Kelly: Tell us a little more about your background. What did you study and how did you become interested in the history of Hanford?

Gerber: Well, I studied American history as a PhD student. Earned a PhD in 1975. My major concentration was in the 20th century: populism, progressivism, the New Deal, the Cold War.

Kelly:  That’s fantastic. How did you, how did you happen to fasten on Hanford’s history?

Gerber: I moved to Richland, Washington. Of course, Hanford is the dominant industry. And the waste cleanup hadn’t really started. In fact, it was not mandated in law until 1989, and I came here two years before that. But some of the preliminary studies were starting by the State of Washington. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control was also conducting a study of iodine emissions and health effects that later transitioned to the University of Washington. But, at that time it was being run directly by the Centers for Disease Control. They hired me as a consultant to research some of the historical, statistical groups that they would have to gather. They would have to gather school groups and population groups from the 1940s.

Gerber: Well, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control was called in, and decided that there was grounds to make a study. But  they hadn’t yet let a contract to contractor, so they were doing their own preliminary studies.

But they needed to know, “Could you establish who lived here? Did you have any way of doing that?” Because during the Depression and into the 1940s in this area, it was so poor that most of the school districts didn’t have secretaries in the schools. They didn’t keep rolls of the schools. They didn’t have any kind of really organized record-keeping. These tiny hamlets east of the Tri-Cities of Washington [Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland].

It was a matter of going out into these tiny communities and trying to find out if a local historical society or a school, by chance, had some records that were defensible and could be put together from the 1940s.

Kelly:  Just a record of who was there?

Gerber: Who was there. In many cases, I would be walking up and down the halls of some rural school, looking at graduation photos, and literally counting people. Sometimes, I’d go to a rural school and I’d be given a box in some basement covered with spider webs to look for records from the 1940s.

Kelly:  Oh, that’s fascinating. You had to compile a whole list, an inventory of everyone, and then what did you do?

Gerber: You had to find out whether you can do a population study. If your statistical base is too small, then your results will not be defensible. You had to find out if that could even be done. Then, they decided yes, there was enough population. There were gaps, but there was enough record-keeping that we could put together a cohort that could be studied.

Kelly:  You said they were called in. Who were they called in by? Who started this?

Gerber: The Hanford site and the Department of Energy had proposed that Hanford would be one of the sites that would be a repository for national, high-level waste storage. The State of Washington did not want that, and the Yakama Indian Tribe did not want that. They were suing the Department of Energy over stopping this project.

In the midst of their discovery, they discovered a lot of historical records that caused them concern about health effects. They called in the Centers for Disease Control, asked them to take a look.

Kelly:  That’s interesting. What kind of health effects emerged in this?

Gerber: As part of the discovery in 1986—and this was before I got here—the Department of Energy released about 25,000 pages of historical documents. They went right back all the way to the 1940s and the founding of the site. Those records proved to be surprising. The State of Washington became concerned, and they requested more documents. Some more documents came out in 1987, just before I arrived.

There was this trove of historical documents that no one had really looked at in-depth, certainly not a historian. They were taking a look. They were concerned enough that they brought in the Centers for Disease Control and they said, “We’d like to take a look. We need to hire some local consultants.” And I was one of those.

Kelly:  Did these documents talk about health effects?

Gerber: They didn’t talk about health effects directly. They talked about emissions and waste releases. From there you become concerned, “If these emissions have occurred, what effect have they had?

Kelly:  That’s very interesting. They already had the release information, like, I suppose, a potential dose. I guess there’s a lot of detective work that had to happen then, to figure out who was living where and how much one might have been individually exposed. Tell us about that.

Gerber: It was a huge dose reconstruction that ended up happening. But in the beginning, it was much more of a broad sweep. It was, “What was out there? Could you really find out what was out there?”

I began to read some of these historical documents. That wasn’t my assignment, but I began to read them. I wanted to know what I was dealing. I wanted to learn more. What happened was, the documents raised more questions than they answered, because of all, the measurement systems were very old. They’re arcane. There are measurements that aren’t even used today. You’ll have a term such as “REP,” which stands for Roentgen Equivalent Physical. We don’t use that term anymore. It’s not quite equivalent to the term “rem” [Roentgen equivalent man] but it’s related. How do you actually calculate back and forth, what’s the dose?

The other thing that was unusual about these documents was that they were filled with code words. What I would do is immediately go to the footnotes of the document and say, “How can I learn what this code word is?” Not being able to easily do that, I’d just request, through the Freedom of Information Act, all the documents in the footnotes.

Kelly:  Did the government supply those documents to you, or was this a fight?

Gerber: Filing a Freedom of Information Act request, at least in those days, didn’t cost much money. Today, I think it’s by the page, or some different system. You could request, but you got a lot of stalling. You got a lot of, “I can’t,” “We can’t find it,” “We’re not sure.”

I, by then, was curious enough. I said, “This is, this is really grassroots history. This is what every historian dreams of: is to land somewhere and find a story that hasn’t been told.” I became more determined. I started request big documents that were easily found. Maybe you couldn’t find a memo from 1944 that was half a page, but if you requested something that was several volumes, it was much harder for them to say they couldn’t find it.

That was the new strategy. I do remember what now is known as “The Operational History of Hanford,” written by DuPont in 1946. It’s very detailed; it’s 18 volumes. But it was still classified. I requested it, and waited—I can’t really remember, but several months. Anywhere from six months to 10 months I know I waited. One day, literally, a delivery truck drove up in front of my house with the 18 volumes. There it was, and, of course, I sat up all night, literally reading. Because you couldn’t stop.

Kelly:  For heaven’s sake. Oh, my goodness. Did they give you a Xerox copy of all 18 volumes?

Gerber: Yes. It was all Xerox. Some of it was kind of hard to read. But it contained—if you really looked, if you really read it—absolutely startling information, in that there was knowledge that releases were going out, radioactive releases beyond the limits that had been set by the Manhattan Engineer District. In some cases, massively larger, and, in some cases, repeatedly larger. So that it became a pattern, not an anomaly. At that point, then you really have an investigation going.

Kelly:  What kind of materials were in these releases?

Gerber: Each volume is dedicated to a different aspect of operation. For instance, they were running the town of Richland, and so a couple of volumes are about city administration and the city housing and the city police. Another volume is about supplying electric power and power to the Hanford site, all aspects.

But you went to the key aspects—reactor operations, separations plant operations, and fuel-making operations—because those are the areas that are going to generate radioactive releases. Within those documents was contained some very startling information about the extent of releases and the concerns of the managers, who knew about and were writing these reports. That they themselves were sort of taken aback, amazed, not happy with these releases and actually quite worried about them.

Kelly:  And that’s expressed in the documents?

Gerber: They’re unemotional. They wouldn’t use a word like “amazed.” They’re almost just military precision. But they will say things like, “Such-and-such level was detected 30 miles from the reservation border, and these releases were beyond the measurable expected doses.” You didn’t have to be very clever to realize that they were concerned, but they never said, “We are concerned.”

Kelly:  Were you surprised that they were monitoring to the extent they were? You mentioned 30 miles from the reservation. What kind of monitoring were they doing?

Gerber: Hanford pioneered the whole science of environmental monitoring. It’s one of the greatest achievements of the site. It faltered, in that it classified the results that it found for many, many years. But the science was very impressive. Going out and monitoring the water, the fish, larvae, insects, bird life, coyotes, even cattle on local ranches, the grasses, and the air itself. We’re not getting into, at that point, any kind of monitoring of underground releases. It’s air and water at that point.

Kelly:  Was one of the things they developed monitoring devices themselves? It is a whole new art there?

Gerber: Hanford did extend the science of monitoring to a huge degree. They had contracts with major suppliers of instrumentation, and were having them develop instruments that had never been in use or seen in the world before. These were really wonderful achievements. But there was the downside. They were finding huge releases of gases, water-born radioactivity that were definitely unhealthy and known to be unhealthy.

Kelly:  How did they deal with this? What were some of the things that DuPont did to protect or warn the populace?

Gerber: One of the main responses that DuPont and the Department of the Army, which was running Hanford at the time, had to these releases was to do more measurements. Of course, you want to gather more data. You want to know if you’re really seeing what you think you’re seeing. You want to verify. You want to have many, many measurements, so that it can’t be seen as a spike or an anomaly or a problem at the plant. And so, a lot more testing.

The testing program went from small to one of the biggest divisions in the entire site. It was rivaling the production departments in size and budget, personnel. They really expanded that monitoring to make sure they knew what they were really dealing with.

Kelly:  So, they knew. Who was at risk there? I guess we’re talking about the ecology, the fish, the plants, the birds and so forth. Were there residents that were in harm’s way?

Gerber: At the time, in World War II, first of all, you didn’t have any production. You didn’t have any radioactive material released until the fall of 1944. Up to that point, no releases. Then, you have production starting. At that point, you have some of the highest releases in American history, going from about Christmas of 1944 until the end of the war, until about mid-summer of 1945, a peak. Because they’re racing to develop the plutonium that’s going to be needed for the weaponry, and the very first tiny amount of plutonium was sent to Los Alamos for development purposes in February 1945.

So, at that point, still pretty small, but then getting continual requests, secret requests, from Los Alamos for more material, more material. They’re producing an awful lot during 1945. Even after the war ended, they had material in process. The production process is many, many weeks, and so they had material that they had started to produce. They had to finish the cycle. So, the high releases go on throughout 1945.

Kelly:  But then, if you look ahead, because you’re doing this 30 years, 40 years later, and a lot happened between 1945 and the end of the war and 1986. What happened—if you want to give little synopsis—between ’45, the end of the war, and ’86 in terms of reduction at Hanford?

Gerber: Well, the Cold War, of course, began. We usually date the beginning of the Cold War with President [Harry] Truman’s Truman Doctrine, which is March of 1947, where he essentially lays down the gauntlet. “We are going to be dominant in this nuclear weaponry.” 1949, the Soviets get the atomic bomb, fully developed, and the race is on.

You really have the ‘50s and ‘60s as the peak of the arms race. And Hanford was the production workhorse for the United States. Hanford was Hercules. Hanford was Paul Bunyan. Hanford is producing a lot and it’s also emitting a lot.

The emissions for gas—that is, radioactive gases, primarily iodine-131—actually peaked about 1952. They were scrambling to develop a technology to stop this. How do you stop it? Before that point, the only thing they had were physical filters. You know, physical. You could make the mesh of the filter tighter and tighter, but you still can’t trap a gas. You can trap a particulate. But if you want to trap a gas, you have to cause a chemical reaction in the filter. They did figure that out. Oak Ridge actually developed a filter, called a silver reactor, where the filter media was coated with silver iodide. A chemical reaction would take place as the gas passed through it and trap the gas. So then, you have a technology that can stop those releases.

The problem is that brand new, deployed on a large scale, right away, at Hanford, it didn’t work perfectly. You had a few years there, between about 1952 and ’55, where the filters aren’t working quite right. For one thing, they would overheat and, at that point, they wouldn’t work. It literally burnt out. The gas would come through, and you’d have to develop a flow mechanism that would slow it down and also cool it down so that it would work very well. They tried that with trial and error. They didn’t have it quite right, and the filters wouldn’t work perfectly.

Meanwhile, production is rising, so the gas emissions are rising. They stabilized about 1955, ’56, and they level off. They have from then on just an occasional accident or spike, where a filter will fail, but no continual releases.

Kelly:  In terms of your review—or maybe it was the CDC that took your data and went into the field. How did they do those response studies that they did?

Gerber: In 1990, the Centers for Disease Control let a contract to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle to actually conduct the study. At that point, I was out of the study. I was actually doing other research. That went on into the medical and health physics professionals, and I’m not one of those.

Kelly:  But you get it started. You provided the baseline.

Gerber: I hope I gave them a start to take a look at that part of American history.

Kelly:  It’s very interesting, because I guess we need to find others who can answer those questions as to how they did reconstruct the dose response. Hopefully, we can fill that gap in. But this has been a great insight, at least for me, about your work very early on. And that there was quite a bit of releases that DuPont became aware of, and then I guess its successor contractor was the one who tried to work with these filters. Or maybe they did some filtration as well?

Gerber: DuPont, they were not able to filter the gases. They relied on wind dispersion. They thought they were being very modern, and they hired a meteorologist even before operations began to predict the wind patterns. They developed models that we might see as a little bit simplistic, but they were doing their best. They had cloning model and fanning model, and it was all dependent on how the wind was going to disperse in certain conditions. It wasn’t just wind velocity, because the Hanford site has many microclimates and little rising up hills in it and little depressions, and it has the river. There’s a great deal of mixing of the air.

They developed what they thought was a good formula for how fast the wind could blow, the direction, and these little patterns that would result from the microclimate effects. They would say, “In certain conditions, go ahead and dissolve the irradiated metal, which would generate the gas.” Other conditions: “Yeah, you can dissolve, but don’t dissolve a lot or be cautious.” And then, other conditions: “Don’t dissolve. These conditions are considered dangerous.”

During 1945, they dissolved in all conditions, because they were hurrying to produce. They simply dissolved whenever they needed to dissolve, despite the wind conditions.

Kelly:  Can you just take a second and explain what you mean by “dissolve”?

Gerber: In the plutonium production process, you place uranium inside a reactor and irradiate it. When it comes out of the reactor, it’s still a solid piece of metal. You have to dissolve it in acid in order to extract the plutonium fraction. When you dissolve is when you evolve gases.

Kelly:  The gases you’re talking about would have come from the 200 Area, where they did this chemical separation process?

Gerber: Absolutely. The gas was evolved from the separations facilities in the 200 Areas. We’re not talking releases from reactors. The reactors did release some noxious gases, but nothing compared to the separations plants.

There was an event called the Green Run, December 1st and 2nd, 1949, and that was a test. Recall that the Soviet Union had just exploded its first atomic bomb at the last day of August, and it was detected at Hanford first, first in the world outside of the Soviet Union. It was detected by Hanford’s air filters that had been set up to monitor Hanford’s own iodine gases. Pretty soon—it was Labor Day weekend—and pretty soon, all the air monitors started alarming, “High releases.” People who were home on vacation were called in, running to the plant to see where is. “Where is the accident? What has failed? Would we have some big gas leak?” And there were no problems at the plant.

They consulted with the Department of Defense. They deduced that this was gas coming down the jet stream from Siberia, and this was part of the Soviet Union’s program. That’s how we knew, as a nation, that the Soviets had the bomb. Here you are, second week of September, and the Department of Defense said, “We want to come out and run a test of these air filters and just see, what is the threshold, how do we gauge how much is coming out, how fresh, how soon it has dispersed.” And so, they set up a test with Hanford’s air monitors.

The problem was that the late fall in the Columbia Basin is always full of fog and inversions. It’s very characteristic here, and that didn’t mesh well with the plans of the Department of Defense to run a test here at that time. By the time they got organized, it was November, and the fog is rolling in. The Department of Defense officials were here for two or three weeks waiting for a clear day. They didn’t get a clear day.

They finally got what they thought was going to be an okay day to run a test, where they would release quite a bit of iodine gas and then monitor the filters. They had filters set up all the way to Spokane, all over the area, and they were going to gain their data. They did release the gas, and an inversion moved in and it actually rained. It wasn’t just wet fog; it was actually raindrops. The gas came down close in and heavy.

That was the Green Run, where exposures were very heavy around Walla Walla, Franklin County, just east of the Hanford site and just north.

Kelly:  I hadn’t realized it was linked to the efforts to figure out what the Soviet test consisted of. Is that correct?

Gerber: That’s correct.

Kelly: I thought it was just a production run, and they took green fuel that hadn’t marinated long enough—or cooled off, is a better word—in the cooling water.

Gerber: For the Green Run, they took very fresh fuel, only been out of the reactor a few days. Whereas, normally, you want to cool it a long time.

Kelly:  They did that, there was a deliberate—

Gerber: Yes.

Kelly:  That’s very interesting. Because I know they delayed the announcement of detecting the Soviet test, and this was what was going on. They were trying to confirm how big it was, or do these runs?

Gerber: I don’t know all those details. Definitely, Hanford was called into service to help them measure how much gas is evolved when you do this. Of course, a bomb test, the fission products are fresh. They’re not cooled at all. They wanted to be able to compare and calculate, “If you have fresh fission products, and they’re released in Kazakhstan or Siberia, and it takes so many days to travel, what does that look like, in terms of what kind of isotopes are we going to detect in what strength?”

Remember, iodine-131 has a half-life of eight days, so it’s really easy to calculate. If you’re seeing this much, it must be two weeks ago, or it must be this strength. That’s how Hanford was being helpful in this process.

Kelly:  Interesting. That’s fascinating. That was 1949, the fall of ’49.  These doses that were picked up as far as Yakima and Spokane were ten times the usual amount that might have been released? Or, do you have any order of magnitude of how much this dropped on a civilian? But is it looked at as a significant marker of exposure?

Gerber: The Green Run, I can’t tell you orders of magnitude, how many times what would be normal. Because, what would even be normal? But we know that it was one of the largest single point source releases in American history.

Kelly:  I guess that it was compounded in its adversity to those surrounding communities because of the weather, because the rain precipitated it in a way that that they did not anticipate. Is that correct?

Gerber: It’s correct that they did not anticipate it raining out and coming down in certain spots, which they called hotspots, that were very, very heavily impacted. They didn’t expect that. And that included the Tri-Cities. It did not include Yakima, because that is to the west, and the winds always blow to the east here.

Kelly:  In terms of the downwinder, so-called downwinder population, where were the hotspots, or where was the greatest exposures? Would it be the eastern populous? How do you characterize that?

Gerber: The greatest exposures were almost an ellipse, and there are maps. There was sort of an elliptical shape, and it curved just a little bit north and east of the site and went up to the town of Connell, thereabouts, almost to the town of Ritzville. And then, it sort of bulged out to the east, covering Franklin County and Walla Walla County.

Kelly:  That is where you found, or the CDC found, the most affected populations. Is that correct?

Gerber: The downwinder population, in general, is on the east side of the Hanford site: either directly east, Franklin County, southeast, Walla Walla County, or right in the Tri-Cities.

Kelly:  Do you have any sense of proportion that these communities, what percent of the population were affected? Or, is that hard to generalize?

Gerber: As a historian, I can’t say anything about portions or percentages. I know that the Centers for Disease Control study that was run by Fred Hutchinson did not find a significant effect, statistically significant effect. So, that’s hard data.

Anecdotal data all over this area is very different. It’s really—in my view—an unsettled matter, in terms of American history. 

Kelly:  When you say it’s a statistically significant effect, can you explain that? What does that mean?

Gerber: I’m not a statistician, but statistically significant, you have to have a spike that is in some way statistically provable, that it’s above what would be normal or average in a population. And that did not occur, as far as I know, in the Fred Hutchinson study. But all over this area, you won’t convince very many people that there was no effect.

Gerber: Well, one thing is we haven’t talked much about the river-born. Do you want to talk about that?

Kelly:  Absolutely, yes.

Gerber: Hanford’s problem with the Columbia River began very soon after World War II. In World War II, yes, the reactor effluent or cooling water that had been through the reactors was channeled to the Columbia River. But we don’t find very much effect. There’s not zero effect, but not much effect.

It’s after the Cold War begins, and they’re building more reactors. And they’re also raising the power levels of the reactors that they already had built, and that essentially means pushing more cooling water through. The way that you will increase the power level is to increase the heat. That is, you will put either more uranium or partly-enriched uranium, generate more heat, you’ll need more cooling water. 

Gerber: When you want to raise the power level of—these are old-fashioned reactors, very simple machines—the way that you will push the power level higher is to put in either more uranium or closely-spaced, fewer so-called spacers or duds, or you will put in partly enriched-uranium that causes the fission reaction to go faster, hotter. You need more cooling water to cool it down. Essentially, raising the power level of these old-fashioned reactors necessitates pushing more water through them. You’re going to have more water in, more water out to the Columbia River and, additionally, more reactors.

In the late 1940s is when the river effects become quite noticeable. And they’re noticeable, because the staff of the biology operation at Hanford is growing. They’re doing their due diligence; they’re measuring the water, the fish, the mud, all the parts of the river. By the summer of 1947, which isn’t very long into the process, they’re already saying, “Gee, the levels are double what they were last year in certain parts of the river, or certain patches of mud.” By 1949, “Wow, now they’re three or four times what they were.” By the mid-1950s and the late 1950s, you’re getting exponential. I mean, exponential in that a sample of a fish might be 50 times what it was. It might be 100,000 times what it was in World War II. The problems in the river are getting severe.

There’s also chemical contamination. There’s chemicals added to the water. But the main problem comes because the water, the process tubes that hold the water, will develop a film over time. You have to purge off that film. You have to scrape it, rinse it off, or it will interfere with the fission reaction. You have to add purge chemicals, and sometimes particulates to the cleaning water, the cooling water, run it through the reactor to purge the film off the tubes. And out would come an array of chemicals into the river.

As the reactors operated hotter and with more water, the film developed faster. You’re at the point, by the mid-1950s, that you’re having to purge a reactor every month. In some cases, in the early 1960s, more than once a month per reactor. You’re having a huge chemical burden introduced to the river. In some cases, the site scientists would say in their secret reports, “The chemical burden is almost worse than the radiological burden.” So, you had that. Of course, it’s all classified. The public is not being told.

The third problem is heat. Of course, the reactor water enters from the river at about, I’m going to say, a year-round average of 50 to 70 degrees. And it’s going to come out at near boiling. It’s going to come out at up to almost the boiling point.

In fact, over the years, the Atomic Energy Commission raised the exit water temperature limits over and over. To the point that by 1962, the operating limit was—as long as the water didn’t flash to steam—it could come out at one to one-half degree below boiling. It’s coming out very hot. By this time, also you got more water, less capacity to retain it, to cool it off before it goes back. It’s going into the river sometimes only 30 minutes after it came out of the reactor, so it hasn’t cooled very much.

By the early 1960s, the heat load was such that the reactors, they were afraid were going to have to shut down in the summer. They couldn’t even operate, because of the heat load in the water. They developed a secret plan with the Department of the Interior that runs Grand Coulee Dam to release large quantities en masse, from Lake Roosevelt, which is the upstream side of the Grand Coulee Dam, and flush that, flush cold water, down through the Hanford Reach, so that the reactors could continue to run all summer long.

They did that from 1960—it was either ’61 or ’62, not sure which—for about four years. The reactors began to shut down, and the problem was fixing itself.

Kelly: Do you want to talk about why some of these reactors were shut down in, what was it, 1964?

Gerber: In 1963, President [John F.] Kennedy was assassinated. In 1964, in January, in the State of the Union message, President [Lyndon B.] Johnson announced that Hanford reactors would begin to close in a phased manner. They started to close in December 1964. That progressed over years, to the point that all the old reactors were closed by 1971. And N Reactor closed for a couple of months, reopened, and continued.

But the reasons are under debate among historians. Certainly, our nation was not slowing down its plutonium production. That’s not the answer, because we were ramping up production at Savannah River. We were certainly producing more weaponry after 1964 than before, and that went on for several years.

So, why Hanford? There are several theories. One theory is that—and this is a silly one—that President Johnson didn’t like Hanford, because they did experiments on beagle dogs, and he loved beagle dogs. That’s certainly not a serious historical theory, but some people will tell you that.

Among the theories are really that, in secret, the secret documents were showing that the Columbia River could not bear the burden anymore. And that a very, very powerful senator, who was Scoop Jackson—Henry Jackson, from the State of Washington—was aware of that through the secret documents that he was privy to, and that he had to bow to that pressure. “We can’t do this anymore.” So, that the government made a decision to move the production elsewhere, but to still keep national production high. There’s quite a bit of good evidence for that.

But being a good politician, Henry Jackson and our other senator, who was Warren Magnuson, also very powerful, were not going to let their region lose this giant industry without getting something back. They went to Washington and said, “We need something, a giveback. We need something in the burgeoning realm of peaceful nuclear power.” That’s how the Hanford site was chosen for the fast-flux test reactor.

Kelly:  What was the fast-flux test reactor?

Gerber: The fast-flux test reactor, or known as FFTF, was going to be the prototype for a civilian power reactor. It was going to produce electric power, not weaponry.

However, its fuel was going to be partly plutonium, which is not the case in normal, everyday power reactors today in the United States. This was going to be the prototype for a new type. That got to be a very scary aspect, and caused a lot of controversy in the history of that reactor and eventually caused its shutdown.

Kelly:  Did it ever actually run?

Gerber: Yeah. The FFTF ran for a few years. It actually had its first hot test run in 1980. It was officially commissioned, but didn’t run at full power until 1983. And then, it did run for just a few years.

But already, there were problems. The U.S. government and the whole national policy under President [Jimmy] Carter was turning away from plutonium-based fuels. That program was dying on a national level. The reactor ran mostly with experimental tests from abroad, from the Japanese and others who put their experiments in there with plutonium-based fuels. Our country turned away from all of that, and so the reactor really didn’t have a mission or a future.

Kelly:  Okay. One thing you haven’t talked about is the backyard cow and all of that. They were going through this elaborate process to keep the civilian population in the dark about the potential threats or health effects from their operations, and yet, feeling they had to do something. so Can you talk about that?

Gerber: Well, a farmland problem came in two ways. It came from gaseous deposits on the grass and on the animals themselves. They would eat the grass contaminated with radioisotopes, and it would transfer into their milk. The other problem came from irrigated crops, irrigated with water from the Columbia River just below Hanford.

There was a concern among the scientists at Hanford that somehow, they would have to protect the people or give them subtle warnings, but without panicking the population. You can’t panic the population. They might all move away. You might not have a workforce. You had to give what, in their view, was some protection. Of course, in the 21st century, we would argue against that kind of decision-making in secret, but that was what they were doing.

Sometimes they would tell people, “Don’t drink the milk from your backyard cow. Buy it commercially.” They would bring it in from a little bit west of the Hanford area, either western Benton County or even in Yakima County, and they would tell people to use that milk source.

Also, there were a lot of subtle warnings, such as cutting down certain sage plants in your yard because of “allergies.” The so-called leaves or bracts of those plants happened to be good collection devices for the radioactive gases. They had a number of things that could be interpreted as very subtle warnings. That has never been absolutely proved, but certainly circumstantially, there is a lot of reason to believe that. 

Kelly:  Those actions, did they happen after DuPont’s presence? They’re not in the 18 volumes. I’m just wondering where they started to do those kinds of things.

Gerber: Those warnings can be found in the Richland Villager newspaper, which was published during World War II. It was a company newspaper published by DuPont for the Richland Village. They called it “village” at the time.

Kelly:  Did it continue under GE?

Gerber: The newspaper itself went out of business. You find the Richland Villager, I think, last published, I believe, in 1949. There was some years of publishing when General Electric was running the site, and, yes, the warnings are still there in 1947, ’48, and ’49.

Interestingly, they would publish maps of where you could hunt and where you should hunt. Again, those can be interpreted as unnatural boundaries, shall we say. Boundaries that might have been drawn for a reason other than normal hunting boundaries. A lot of warnings that were subtle, going through the period of the late 1940s.

Kelly:  And then, there were no more warnings? Or there wasn’t this organ, the newspaper, that plant managers had a hand in?

Gerber: Starting in 1950, you can trace a newspaper here called The Columbian Basin News. It was not published by the managers of Hanford. It was independent; it was based in Pasco, I believe. It did not give those kinds of subtle warnings. They’re not to be found.

However, you still had public health bulletins from the medical department of the General Electric Company here. Those have continued all the way until Richland became an independent city in 1958.

Kelly:  Fascinating. When do you suppose the population became aware of this ruse, I guess you might call it, for these subtle hints?

Gerber: This information was not available until the document releases of the 1980s. You did not have that. You would have things coming out from the environmental contractors at Hanford during the ‘60s and ‘70s, regarding fishing and where you ought to fish and ought not to fish. Of course, behind the scenes, there was a huge debate going on about whether or not you needed to close certain areas to fishing or warn fishermen specifically.

A lot of times, diet studies were undertaken where fishermen were interviewed. “How much do you eat? When? How much does your family eat of this fish? What times of the year do you fish here?” Because in the river, the pollution was worse in the late summer and fall, when the river flow is very low, and the levels of contamination would rise.

There was a lot of interviewing and a lot of talking. But you never have a clear-cut, flat-out warning that you should not do these things, because there is contamination. That wasn’t known until 1986.

Kelly:  What happened then?

Gerber: The documents began to be released, and the State of Washington Health Department was involved. They began to let the public know that this had been a problem. By then, it really wasn’t a problem.

Kelly:  It was a good time to let people know. Interesting. The health effects that were observed, can you characterize the whole range? I mean, was it thyroid cancer? Was it a whole variety of manifestations?

Gerber: You can say that certain isotopes are known to cause certain cancers. Iodine-131 heads straight for the thyroid, and that’s going to be the most affected organ. It’s not the only gas, but that was the major gas of concern.

In the river isotopes, you have isotopes that are going to affect the gastrointestinal tract. There has not been a study of whether there was more intestinal cancer or esophageal cancer or colon cancer. There has not been a study, but those are the areas that those isotopes would naturally attack.

In the mid-1950s, Hanford scientists, geologists, began to discover a trend that was brand new. Underneath some of the groundwater disposal sites, where groundwater would simply be flooded with lower-level effluence from the Hanford plants, they discovered that the groundwater was actually mounding up. Mounds were developing below the surface in the water table. These were causing water to then run underground in different patterns than had been natural.

They were finding, by about the late 1950s, that if you disposed some effluent with not the hot levels of reactor effluent, but lower-level cleansing waters from the various plants, and you disposed those in the ground, they wouldn’t run in the pattern that you might expect. They might run in a completely different pattern. In fact, they might run what you would think of as upstream or up-gradient. They would run around a little mound, and go somewhere else.

The groundwater was becoming contaminated and pooling in different ways, and that became a huge area of study for Hanford geologists—of course, again, in secret. But then, they had to decide with the plant managers. “How are we going to divert this? Where are we going to put all this effluent?” It became quite a concern.

At the same time, it was discovered—suspected, in 1954 and confirmed in 1956—that tanks were leaking. The underground waste tanks were also leaking into the soil, in some cases penetrating to groundwater. Although, unconfirmed for a long, long time. Again, that was considered a downstream problem that wasn’t going to directly affect the population. They felt they had many years to devise solutions. No warnings were given about that.

Kelly:  This is because these tanks are 10 miles from the river—is that what they were thinking?

Gerber: Yes. The Hanford waste tanks are all in the 200 Areas, the center of the site. They’re not near the river. Reactors do not have waste tanks next to them. The managers felt, “We have time. We will devise a solution.” That became the never-ending story that we are still dealing with today.

I guess I’ll wrap up by saying, the Hanford site offers many lessons for the 21st century. One lesson is the lesson of unintended consequences. Very good and very smart people—very well-intentioned, motivated to protect the country, or protect something—can also do a lot of harm. 

Another lesson is that when you have a new technology, it’s not a good idea to just leave experts in charge of it. If you think of the new technologies of the 21st century, such as genetic technologies or information technologies, some people might say, “It’s so complicated, the average person can’t understand how those things work. We’ll just leave the decisions to the scientists.”

That’s a very bad idea, in my opinion, because at Hanford, the new technology was nuclear reactors. Many people thought, “The public can’t understand it, so we’ll just leave the decisions to the experts.” They made some very disastrous decisions, and that shouldn’t happen in a democracy. That’s my opinion.