Hanford, animal farm advanced radiation research

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 6, 2013 

Bill Bair

Little was known about the health effects of radionuclides when Hanford began to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program in 1944.

But there were concerns early on, said Bill Bair, who gave the first lecture in the Hanford History Partnership's lecture series Sunday in Richland to observe the 70th anniversary of Hanford.

Bair earned the world's first doctorate in radiation biology and came to work at Hanford in 1954. He eventually would become manager of the Life Sciences Center at what is now Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Concerns ranged from whether plutonium was putting the health of workers at risk to whether radioactive materials released from Hanford operations in its early production years had an effect on wildlife.

Radionuclides were detected in jackrabbits, ducks, geese and deer caught at Hanford, raising the question of whether contaminants were being carried off the nuclear reservation, Bair said.

"Well, yeah, they were," he said. Ducks and geese sampled in the Potholes Reservoir area were found to have radionuclides and some water fowl with radionuclides were discovered in California, he said.

But the final assessment then was that people would have had to have consumed a diet so high in contaminated species that it was not a serious health risk, he said.

Radionuclides were not detected in crops watered from the Columbia River, he said. But in 1946 cattle wandered onto a portion of the Hanford nuclear reservation, and after a day of volunteers trying to lasso enough to test, some evidence of radionuclides was found. That led to the clandestine testing of cattle on nearby farms, Bair said.

Two security agents instructed a scientist with the Hanford program to pose as a U.S. Department of Agricultural official evaluating the health and vigor of animals as they took him around to farms.

As the Atomic Energy Commission looked for peaceful uses for the atom in the 1950s, one proposed plan was to use a series of nuclear explosions to dig the Panama Canal and there was consideration of testing the principle by using nuclear devices to dig a harbor on the Alaskan coast, he said.

Hanford researchers were sent to Alaska and assigned to collect data, including a baseline assessment of the radioactivity within the bodies of native people. They found that lichen had soaked up radioactive fallout and then was eaten by caribou. The caribou were part of the native diet, giving them about 2 percent to 4 percent of the amount of radioactive cesium set as the limit considered safe for nuclear workers, Bair said.

During the Cold War, the biological research testing at Hanford grew to include a experimental farm near Hanford's F Reactor.

Among goals was learning more about radioactive iodine, one of the contaminants released from Hanford stacks to float downwind during the site's early production years.

For 11 years sheep were fed a daily diet of pellets containing radioactive iodine. The research found no effect on sheep receiving low doses. Among the 90 that received high doses, three developed malignant tumors and none of the second-generation ewes had lambs, although Bair was uncertain whether the cause was ever determined.

Cows and pygmy goats were used to learn more about how radioactive iodine was transferred to milk, an important concern because children downwind of Hanford are now known to have been exposed to radioactive iodine from drinking milk produced by cows that grazed on contaminated grass.

Miniature pigs, which weighed about the same as a human and had a similar intestinal tract, were used to study the ingestion of radioactive strontium from worldwide nuclear fallout. Research showed that pigs that received large amounts were at higher risk of leukemia and bone cancer.

At one point, a researcher wanted to do some work with baboons and had two flown to Hanford. But they escaped their shipping cages at the Los Angeles airport, Bair said.

One jumped in a water fountain and splashed the people who walked by, and the other climbed "to the rafters and raised holy hell for several hours" until a veterinarian tranquilized it. Once they got to Hanford, their reputation had preceded them and nobody wanted to handle them, Bair said.

Much of Bair's research was on the effects of the inhalation of plutonium, helping find that if amounts were significant it could cause lung and bone cancer late in life.

Beagles were commonly used for research then and researchers bred their own to obtain healthy, uniform dogs, he said.

The research would be no better than the dogs used, and the animals received the best treatment possible, he said. At one time the animal farm had 12 veterinarians, he said.

Research money was easier to obtain than construction money for a facility to house the dogs. So Bair started putting in work orders for temporary dog runs, first for a concrete pad and then for roofing to add shade as summer approached. More work orders added lighting, heating and cooling until an Atomic Energy Commission worker came out and nailed on a placard giving the facility a building number.

Research conducted in the program also developed the medical treatment and protocols that would be used to successfully treat Harold McCluskey, a Hanford worker who was sprayed with radioactive americium and nitric acid during a 1976 explosion at Hanford.

For information on upcoming lectures in the Hanford 70th Anniversary series, go to www.ourhanfordhistory.org.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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