The Hanford Nuclear Reservation Litigation, or the “Downwinders Case,” is one of the most controversial legal struggles in the history of atomic energy. It raised scores of environmental, scientific, civil rights, health, and legal questions. It focused on the chemical separation plant at Hanford, near Richland, Washington, built during the Second World War to extract plutonium from spent uranium. The plant produced the fissionable material used in the atomic bomb that leveled Nagasaki, and for decades thereafter it produced bomb material for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The facility is described by some as one of the earth’s most contaminated sites because of groundwater seepage, river pollution, and atmospheric discharges. The legal case, begun in 1990, was a class action that consolidated thousands of plaintiffs who alleged that Hanford’s environmental contamination was responsible for health problems, specifically thyroid disease, over a wide area that included several U.S. states, including Oregon.

Although the exposures themselves date from the 1940s, the scientific efforts to imagine and calculate those exposures began decades later, and stretched from the late 1980s to the late 1990s. The Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction (HEDR) Project and its various publications were not only critical to the legal team, they also continue as the basis for most points of reference about thyroid exposure from Hanford. And yet the studies were controversial, with criticism coming from different scientists working under the auspices of the National Research Council, and from other stakeholders—residents, activists, and nearby Native American tribal councils. For scholars, it is crucial to understand how these historical doses were reconstructed.

Our work is oriented toward two distinct goals. The first focuses on developing an important research collection, the recently-acquired Berger/Haber Hanford Nuclear Reservation Downwinders Case Collection, working in collaboration with the Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC) of Oregon State University. This will involve digitizing a portion of this collection and supplementing it with oral history interviews. The second goal is to produce the first detailed historical studies of the dose reconstruction project, linking it to issues in the history of science, environmental history, and the broad field of “science and technology studies” (STS). This will be based on research by the project team, as well as scholars here and at other universities and/or agencies who will be invited to spend time researching the collection and then to contribute to an edited collection of essays.

This project began in Fall 2017 and is slated to end by Fall 2020. It is funded by the National Science Foundation, Award #1734618.

If you are a scholar and would like to participate in this work, please contact us directly, or consider responding to one of our calls for papers.

If you have a connection to the historical events and can help us identify persons to interview (as part of the oral histories component of the project), please contact us any member of our team.

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