As cleanup efforts continue in Washington state at a decommissioned U.S. nuclear facility that played a crucial role in the country's acquisition of the atom bomb in World War II, questions linger over whether the site has caused serious health issues for workers and local residents.
Construction began on the facility, known as the Hanford site, 80 years ago in 1943 and involved the building of the world's first large-scale nuclear reactor.
Through the Manhattan Project, a U.S. government research and development program for building nuclear weapons, the site's B reactor, erected on a 580-square-mile stretch of land next to the Columbia River in south-central Washington, produced the nuclear material for one of the only two atomic bombs ever used in an armed conflict.
Codenamed "Fat Man," the device was detonated over the city of Nagasaki in southwestern Japan on Aug. 9, 1945, effectively ending Japan's involvement in the conflict.
The 6.2 kilograms of plutonium contained in the nuclear device released energy equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT, taking the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people while subjecting the surrounding area to deadly radiation, killing countless more.
But citizens of Nagasaki may not be the only victims of Hanford's plutonium production. During its decades of operation, U.S. residents living near and mainly downwind of the complex experienced severe health effects that they believe stem from the site's activities.
One such resident is Tom Bailie, 76, who grew up and still resides just miles downwind from Hanford in a farming community.
Reflecting on his upbringing, Bailie recalled during an interview in April that no one ever thought the site at Hanford would cause harm to "patriotic American citizens."
But, after he and a local journalist conducted a survey on surrounding farms in 1985, Bailie began to have doubts. Nearly all the families living nearby suffered from cancer, birth defects, or thyroid disease, he says -- health issues that could be attributed to radiation exposure. This led to the area being coined "the death mile" by some journalists at the time.
Bailie said that his wife, father, and three uncles all had cancer before passing away, while his two sisters also have cancer and take thyroid medicine. The year before Bailie was born, his mother had a stillbirth. Bailie himself was born with birth defects and was on an iron lung when he was 4 years old. He now requires medication for a thyroid problem.
Bailie vividly remembers encounters with "men in space suits," equipped with dosimeters to measure radiation levels, walking on his farm. The men would collect soil samples and even ask the farmers to send the heads and feet of ducks and rabbits they would kill while hunting to Hanford for analysis.
When he began speaking out about the hardships and health problems that he attributed to the Hanford site, many people from the community dismissed him as "nuts" or "crazy." Some even mockingly referred to him as the "glow-in-the-dark farmer."
But documents that were declassified in the late 1980s showed that Hanford had contaminated the surrounding farmland, air, farm animals, and crops with unsafe levels of radiation for years.
One such document shows that in December 1949, in an experiment called "Green Run," Hanford scientists knowingly released thousands of curies of dangerous radioactive Iodine-131 from the site to track its course and better understand how it dispersed.
Even with the documents, some living downwind who joined the class action suit against the site were unable to explicitly prove their medical problems were caused by the contamination from the Hanford site. But Bailie still firmly believes the facility is the reason for many people's health problems in the downwind areas.
Bailie said "the government should be ashamed of itself" for what it did to its citizens and that he thinks, at the very least, the government should cover the medical expenses of those who lived downwind.
Before being decommissioned in 1989, Hanford produced around 74 tons of plutonium, nearly two-thirds of all the plutonium produced for government purposes in the United States. One of the consequences of the site's work was massive amounts of contamination and dangerous leftover byproducts, most of which remain on the site today.
Currently, 177 underground tanks containing 56 million gallons of highly radioactive waste, contaminated buildings, and cocooned reactors still exist there, alongside multiple other buried waste sites.
The same year Hanford was decommissioned, cleanup efforts began for dealing with the dangerous byproducts left over from the production of plutonium. Efforts to clean the area of waste are anticipated to be astronomically costly and time-consuming.
According to Hanford's latest estimate, released in 2022, the total cost of the cleanup is projected to range from $319.6 billion to $660 billion, with a completion date not expected until at least fiscal 2078.
But Tom Carpenter, 66, former head of Hanford Challenge, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the responsible and safe clearing of the Hanford site, argues that using the word "cleanup" is misleading.
Carpenter says complete eradication of contamination from thousands of acres is impossible, and not the goal of the cleanup process. He asserts that the best that can be achieved at Hanford is "the mitigation of some risks."
Hanford Challenge's primary goal, he says, is to ensure authorities prioritize a swift cleanup and make sure that no corners are cut, nor workers put in unnecessary danger. This includes fighting for those who are currently working on the site.
Many workers involved in the cleanup of the Hanford site continue to be exposed to toxic chemicals, vapors, and radioactive materials, resulting in debilitating health conditions.
A recent survey of the workers by Washington state revealed more than 50 percent of them had been exposed to radioactive or toxic chemicals. Workers exposed to these dangerous materials and vapors have developed beryllium disease, cancers, organ damage, and occupational dementia.
Until recently, these workers had to prove that their health issues were directly caused by their work at the Hanford site to receive assistance with their medical expenses.
According to former worker and Hanford Challenge director Jim Millbauer, 65, proving this was extremely difficult, costly, time-consuming, and often fruitless, as most occupational illness claims were rejected.
But a recent law has changed this, presuming that any health effects suffered by workers who spend just eight hours working at Hanford are caused by working at the facility, making it easier for sick workers to get their treatment paid for.