Many may not know this, but we have a fabulously robust resident scholar program here in SCARC. Joshua McGuffie has been with us for several months and recently gave a talk, which is summarized in this blog post by our student volunteer Anna Mitchell. We thank Mina Carson (professor in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion) for this photo.
Josh McGuffie, a Resident Scholar in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center, and a Masters candidate in OSU’s History of Science Program, recently reported out on research that he is conducting concerning three distinguished scientists who worked at the Hanford Nuclear Site in eastern Washington. In his talk, he focused on the site during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. McGuffie researched Hanford scientists Herbert Parker, Dick Foster, and William Rickard, and sought to understand how their narratives pertain to the one of the nation’s most polluted place that was once declared safe.
McGuffie described Herbert Parker’s era as one of “needful vigilance.” Parker came to Hanford to lead in the radiation protection program, and headed up the Health Instruments Division. McGuffie stated that Parker felt a responsibility to protect people from radiation, but also thought that the word “radiation” was dirty and a classified term. McGuffie argued that Parker, “wanted to control radiation and not hide it under a bushel.”
McGuffie found that while staggering amounts of Plutonium spewed from Hanford, Parker held a two-fold goal for himself and for the physicists working with him. First, he wanted to avoid or at least competently handle any radiation to which workers at Hanford might be exposed. Second, he aimed to understand the local population’s chronic exposure to radiation and not allow it to become a problem. McGuffie noted that the second goal has been seen as a failure by many people. Most specifically, in 1949 superiors at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) conducted a test at Hanford called “The Green Run” that purposefully released up to 80,000 curies of radio iodine and up to 16,000 curies of radio xenon in a single night. At the time of the test, forceful winds blew plumes of radio iodine over Hanford and through the Tri Cities area. Despite ample reason to believe otherwise, Parker continued to argue that the tests should show no explicit danger to human lives.
Next, McGuffie analyzed Hanford scientist Dick Foster, who described Hanford as “safe by any name.” In his talk, McGuffie stated that, “If Herb Parker argued that Hanford was by nature an environmental place, Dick Foster argued that it was a safe place.” Foster grew up in Washington and studied in the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington. Later, he moved to the fish lab at Hanford, where he exposed salmon and white fish to the site’s effluent reactor.
Needed as a coolant, the Columbia River’s water was passed through the reactor and back into the river, after having sat in cooling trenches for hours. In its review of this system, the AEC asked Foster about the effects of a potential reactor failure on the Columbia River. Foster acknowledged this as a problem but noted that, “many of the organisms in the Columbia would be afforded considerable shielding by the riverbank and the typography of the land and depth of water. In the worst case scenario, should the Columbia’s food chain be disrupted by a lower aquatic organism dying in mass from radiation, nearly normal conditions would probably be restored in one years’ time from reseeding and migration.” Foster also claimed that the radiation from effluent found in the Columbia and picked up by fish was not at all hazardous. He was certain that because the amount of released radiation was well within guidelines established by the government, that people and aquatic life would remain completely safe. He believed further that the radioactive landscape was totally natural and safe, and that Hanford could coexist with normal, everyday human life.
The last scientist that McGuffie discussed was Bill Rickard, who described Hanford as “a pristine island.” Rickard had a background in terrestrial research at Washington State University, and in 1960 he was hired at Hanford to conduct both basic and applied radio ecology in the biology department. To Rickard, Hanford represented unlimited field research possibilities that were much more fascinating to him than was classroom teaching at the university level.
Three administration events took place in Rickard’s first decade at the site. The first was in 1962 when, under Herb Parker’s suggestion, 120 square miles of the site were fenced off and set aside for future use. Then, in 1964, the site’s first ecology lab burned down, causing a shift from lab-based research to land-based research. Lastly, in 1968 the biology department was broken apart to create a separate and independent ecosystems department. These three events helped Rickard to develop research in the 120 square miles of land that had been fenced off by Herb Parker.
This land was called the Arid Land Ecology Reserve (ALE) and was designated for desert and grassland biome studies. McGuffie noted that because of ALE, Hanford received funding from the National Science Foundation to participate in the International Geophysical Year, which looked to take a snapshot of the world’s ecosystems. In 1972, twenty-six discrete ecological studies were conducted at ALE. Rickard and his colleagues studied the land as they walked amongst it: they mapped soils and geological features, defined the water table, and studied the ground water flows emerging from ALE’s two perennial springs. Rickard was particularly interested in beetle studies and the study of energy transfer through biomass. McGuffie’s analysis indicates that Rickard’s narrative was the first to focus on the land itself rather than the land in relation to radio nuclides.
McGuffie’s research sheds important light on the different ways in which three scientists vital to Hanford’s story went about approaching radioactivity and the area’s ecology.
Herbert Parker saw himself as a real environmentalist, because he had protected a landscape characterized by atomic risk. Dick Foster saw the radioactive landscape as a safe place, because it was protected within the standards accepted by the social and scientific communities for atomic responsibility. Finally, Bill Rickard saw the land as pristine because it kept intact the biotic communities, even though it sat in the midst of a radioactive landscape.