The Hanford B Reactor (davidjlee/Creative Commons)

The Atomic Disease

On Oppenheimer's atoms in the body

I GREW UP IN THE NO NUKES ERA, first dragged to protests by my hippie parents, then attending by my own volition. If you’d asked me in the 1980s what I worried about most, it was nuclear war. I spent my elementary school years doing duck and cover drills. I envisioned missiles en route from Russia. In middle school, I watched movies like The Day After, which showed me what to expect, that is, if my family lived in a small Kansas town far from the epicenter. In high school, I stood on police cars with No Nukes signs in Madonna meets Nirvana outfits. My friends and I compared the proximity of our homes to military bases as if in a competition of who would die first when the bomb was dropped. But then, in college, Gorbachev tore down that wall and the fear evaporated. 

Hanford, the world’s first plutonium production reactor, was three hours from my Seattle home. I raised my young eyebrows at their local high school’s mascot, an H-bomb, represented by a mushroom cloud. We were the Cougars. They were the Bombers. Hanford produced the plutonium that was in Oppenheimer’s bomb. That bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, killing between 60,000 and 80,000 people or more, as few sources seem to agree on an exact number, perhaps because entire families were annihilated, leaving few witnesses to report the missing. Radiation exposure killed thousands more over months and years. Radiation can mutate the DNA of cells, leading to cancer, particularly leukemia, which was called the atomic disease” in Japan. 

Recently, I visited the Hanford overlook. I was trying to answer the question of whether nuclear power harnessed for energy instead of a weapon could be good. I also had a more personal inquiry; how did my own husband get the atomic disease?


THIS WAS J. He chanted “bed, bed, bed” when he crawled under our blue Ikea comforter each night. He left corny love notes under pillows, on nightstands, in my work bag—his writing scribbled at a downward slant. He once saw a ragged man on the sidewalk leaning on a cane and struggling to catch his breath. My husband pulled over, gave the man a lift and $20 to ease his day. His eyelashes were dark and long and his eyes dusky green, and he often cast his lids down and ducked his head when he spoke. He delivered irreverent jokes under his breath. Laughter lived within my life in a way it never had before. And never would again.

When J was diagnosed with leukemia, no one could tell us why. His oncologists’ answers were hazy. I wanted facts I could grab on to and hold. Their answers slipped through my fingers like vapor. I researched risk factors. None of them made sense. Like hair dye? I’d taken my restlessness out on my hair: it’d been burgundy, white blonde, dark brunette. It’d been dyed, bleached, dyed, bleached, and dyed again. J’s honey brown hair remained natural, untouched. He had leukemia. I did not. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t live under a power line. His only ailments had been a hernia as an infant, and a mild case of psoriasis as an adult.


THE HANFORD overlook is not really an overlook. It’s a bit of gravel on a rise along a small country highway. This sunburned landscape is not an easy place to live. While the Pacific Northwest is known for lush evergreens, a near-constant drizzle, and large steel blue bodies of water, Hanford, Washington, is in the desert—a vast land of sand and silt dotted with tumbleweed and sagebrush. The colors here are muted, variations of pale greens and coppers that require long looking to see the subtle beauty. On windy days, I’ve dodged tumbleweeds with my Subaru as they rolled across the single-lane road through this desert. Curved pathways through flat mesas and distant tall rock shelves give a feeling of undulation to the drive. The sun beats down relentlessly here; one needs to be hardy to live in this desert. A Manhattan Project historian wrote that when workers were brought here via rail in the early 1940s, Hanford management scheduled the trains to arrive at night so workers wouldn’t see the barren land, remain on the train, and head instead to war work in Bremerton—a spit of land and Navy base directly across the bay from my home in Seattle. I’m surrounded by war preparation.

The Columbia River in Hanford Reach. (Photo: pfly/Creative Commons)

When I pulled off at the overlook, happy to escape from behind a semi that rained bits of alfalfa down on me, I was saddened by what I saw. The B Reactor—where plutonium was produced—was in the distance. The telltale smokestack rose above a cluster of large rectangular buildings. The structures set upon the desert looked like a colony from a Mad Max movie. I half-expected a DIY jeep to come careening around a building, dust in its wake, with men in improvised leather and chains, shaking handmade weapons at me.

What grieved me most was the river. The vast Columbia River waterway is a joyous blue amid its arid surroundings. It’s the most important river in the Pacific Northwest, providing drinking water, farmland irrigation, and half of the region’s electricity through hydroelectric dams. The swirling water of the Columbia flows past the B Reactor, through this region’s agriculture—wine grapes, cherries, and the apples for which Washington is known—through communities all along the border with Oregon, through the city of Portland, with its population of nearly 700,000 people—including my extended family—and then spills out into the Pacific Ocean.

The B Reactor discharged its radioactive effluent directly into the Columbia until 1971. After, the presumption was that the radioactive waste can be contained, not sent down the river, or carried by the wind, or leaked into the soil. In 2021, it was discovered that the waste in the decades-old storage tanks buried deep into the earth had leaked into the groundwater. Hanford stores 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in 177 underground tanks.


THE SAME YEAR I gave birth, 2002, the CDC issued a report on the effect of nuclear contamination in water and soil on Indigenous children along the Columbia River water basin. The children had a higher risk of severe immune diseases. The river is a spawning ground for chinook salmon, which are a key staple in the Yakama tribe’s diet. A mother’s meal passed to her baby, strained through the placenta, and delivered through the umbilical cord. I think of mother’s milk. That what we impart to the most fragile, what is meant to be a miracle, a gift, could instead be contaminated by industry. In central Washington, a curious cluster of a fatal birth defect, anencephaly—the absence of a portion of an infant’s brain and skull—has afflicted more than forty families. Officials state there’s no evidence linking this cluster to Hanford. Every story I read about a worker or a “downwinder”—a townsperson living close to Hanford—afflicted with a curious cancer ends with a government statement of inconclusive connections.

I learned during J’s two years with leukemia that medicine is inconclusive. That science is inconclusive. That faith is inconclusive. That clarity is inconclusive. I tried to capture clarity by learning what was happening in J’s body, but the learning led to more questions. All that was conclusive was the unknowing.

I was trying to answer the question of whether nuclear power harnessed for energy instead of a weapon could be good. I also had a more personal inquiry; how did my own husband get the atomic disease?

Chromosomes are too small to see, even with a microscope. They are described as an uneven X, with longer legs than arms. Each chromosome comes as a set, twenty-two pairs plus the two that decide one’s birth sex, and this total of forty-six form a single cell. We have trillions of cells in our bodies. Chromosomes swap their material. I think of a genetic high five. Among the masses of chromosomes in J’s body, two swapped the wrong material. A mutant cell was created and did what’s in its nature. It multiplied. The abnormal cells spilled out from J’s bone marrow into his bloodstream. They swarmed his red blood cells, reducing his oxygen. They elbowed away the platelets, and blood clots formed. They pushed aside his neutrophils—those cells that battle infection—a fever spiked. He had the atomic disease without having a connection to Oppenheimer, plutonium, uranium, or WWII.

When I gave birth to our twins, I lay in one hospital bed, two swaddled five-pound healthy babies at my breasts, while J lay in another hospital bed, thirteen miles away, where he was being treated with radiation and chemotherapy. We both wore blue hospital bands around our wrists. We both had starched white sheets pulled up to our chests. By then, he’d stopped delivering those irreverent jokes under his breath. He’d stopped expressing the love he had for me. Any energy he had, he needed to hold for himself. Cancer is often coupled with words of a battle, of a fight. The patient is expected to wage war against their disease. But what happens when the patient lays down their weapons? Or when the weapons themselves—chemo and radiation—weaken the patient? He was reduced to a scorched battlefield. How do I know if the disease or the cure killed?


WHEN I LEFT the Hanford overlook, I decided to drive by the main gate. A sentry stood at the closed entrance. Flags flapped in the wind. I slowed my vehicle, imagining millions of barrels of toxic waste just beyond my view.

Here is the narrative on the atomic bomb: It was created out of urgency. The United States and our Allies were losing the war. Thousands of young American men had died. Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. Intel reported that the Germans had discovered fission, the process used to break apart an atom’s nucleus and release its energy. Hitler could not win. Hanford’s B Reactor was built within a year and produced plutonium just a few months later. It was a secretive project. Most workers and the surrounding communities did not know the full extent of what they were working on or living by or exposed to. They were simply proud to be contributing to the war effort.

Plutonium had never been made. Few questioned how to dispose of the production byproducts. Few asked how a substance that didn’t occur in nature could be controlled. A corollary: J’s mutated cells occurred in nature. They also couldn’t be controlled.


WHEN MY CHILDREN were eleven, I took them to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan. I was surprised by the tone of the displays. Despite the devastation of the bomb on Japanese civilians, the tenor could only be called balanced, with Japan taking responsibility for their own government’s role in leading to that moment. I was struck by the letters that the mayors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima wrote to world leaders each time a nuclear weapon was tested. The letters pleaded for the testing to stop. I hadn’t known testing continued. I hadn’t expected to see letters to the president of the United States at the time of our visit, Barack Obama. I’d been under the impression I was there to look at history, to see images in black-and-white, to see a faded issue only relevant in its lessons for the future.

In the United States, the most recent atomic test was in 2021 in the Nevada desert. It was termed a subcritical test, meaning it doesn’t create an explosion and is reported to not have any adverse effects for those living downwind. I wonder.

Signage in the Hanford nuclear plant. (Left: vonguard/Creative Commons. Right: A J Cole/Creative Commons)

In 2016, in an effort to spend time with my increasingly distant teen son, I took him to a science lecture at a Seattle technical bookstore. The small room was packed, people sitting on benches, computer coding books lining the walls. A few of us fanned ourselves. I pulled at my blouse to remove the cloth from my sticky skin. It wasn’t until the lecture was underway that I realized the gathering was pro-nuclear energy. Whether the No Nukes protests of my youth, the resolute belief then that we would all end with a bomb, or the disastrous Three Mile Island meltdown, I’d knee-jerked registered nuclear energy as negative. I glanced at my son; he was nodding along with the discussion, mouthing answers to questions that were posed. He was smart, a sponge. Was what he was digesting good or bad? I whispered to him, “How do you know so much about this?” He rolled his eyes, “Mom, shhh, I studied it in school,” and bent forward, elbows on knees, leaning toward the speaker, who was extolling the virtue of nuclear power over fossil fuels. Nuclear power emits a fraction of greenhouse gas in comparison.

I want to believe in this solution. It requires believing in people. I admit amazement at what people can do. My twins were created in a petri dish. Light. Heat. Fuel. Phones. Planes. Thoughts. Literature. Music. Moon landings.

Yet. Yet. Consider that Three Mile Island officials chose not to evacuate the surrounding community for days after the reactor meltdown. I think of the eleven-year-old girl who coasted on her bicycle as radiation blew through her neighborhood—how her skin blistered with open sores. Consider that the officials at Chernobyl downplayed the crisis for days after the explosion, even while residents were falling ill. Consider that although the public only knows a few by name, there have been over one hundred nuclear accidents around the world: reactor corrosion at Oak Harbor, Ohio; fuel rod collapse in Paks, Hungary; fire in Vandellòs, Spain; heater sleeve cracks in Lusby, Maryland; recurring equipment malfunctions in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Consider that Hanford released iodine-131—a fission byproduct known to cause thyroid cancer—into the surrounding air, where wind carried it, landing on grass where cattle grazed, and subsequently contaminating the milk that locals drank. Consider that the Department of Energy announced in 2019 that it would redefine what constitutes high-level radioactive waste. This change allows the DOE to leave some of the waste in place, rather than the costly, time-consuming effort to move the waste to safer, long-term storage. Consider that Japan is planning to dump over a million tons of contaminated wastewater from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean in 2023. Debris from the tsunami that triggered the Fukushima meltdown washed up along the Washington State coastline for years. I can see a plastic bottle. I can’t see toxic wastewater. Nor can I see the radiation that scientists found in the white muscle tissue of bluefin and albacore tuna who migrated from Japan to the California, Oregon, and Washington coastlines. Officials say the radiation is “below levels that are considered a cause for concern.”


I RECENTLY READ that people with psoriasis have an elevated risk of leukemia. Psoriasis is an autoimmune response by the body to repair a nonexistent threat. A thick layer of skin cells grows rapidly to protect against the false danger. J had two patches of these scaly cells, on his right elbow and over his heart. No one knows why one person has psoriasis and another does not. Did J’s body have a propensity for acute cellular malfunction? Inconclusive. Acute leukemias contain very immature cancer cells. He probably made a joke about that.

Isn’t it odd that radiation can both heal and kill? Before his stem cell transplant, J had total body irradiation. This treatment reduced his immune system so his body was less likely to reject the stem cells transplanted from his older brother. I Googled this treatment and saw images of bald pale children in hospital gowns stuck in plexiglass-like boxes, their hands grasping a bar on either side of them while they stood and radiation was beamed in. I never asked J about his experience. Was he standing? Seated? Did he make a quiet joke under his breath to the technician, to make light of the moment? The radiation led to sores in his mouth and throat, making it painful to swallow.

Meanwhile, my breasts leaked milk. My body was still healing from a vaginal tear that required stitches. My biceps ached from carrying two car seats—a bald pale preemie nestled in each—to and from J’s hospital room. My mood, out of self-preservation, was stoic. I was determined to get to the other side of what I saw as a difficult but impermanent detour. I did not entertain any outcome but a cured husband and a complete family.

It’s clear as thirst when life leaves a body. The heavy vessel left behind is void of the personality and warmth that brightly colored the world. My world. When J took his last breath, I leaned over his body and howled, keened. I’d finally realized I had no control over the outcome. He was thirty-five years old. The twins were five months old. The heart monitor kept beeping, its display unfurling a line of endless ache.

Signage in the Hanford nuclear power plant (Photo: davidjlee/Creative Commons)


RADIATION CANNOT BE SEEN. A Geiger counter is used to detect and measure the particles of ionizing radiation, emitting a static that becomes louder as radiation levels increase. Imagine a machine that could detect souls: 60,000 to 80,000 above Nagasaki; 140,000 in Hiroshima; 70 million in WWII; more than 18,000 in Fukushima (from the earthquake and resulting tsunami). And J. What floats around us unseen? What, or who, swims with the river or soaks into the earth or rides with the wind?

A man who lives not far from Fukushima placed a phone booth—white with paneled glass squares—on his wind-scrubbed land, high in the hills where gusts race to and from the sea. If you pick up the receiver, you don’t hear a dial tone on the other end. There’s no actual connection—at least not in the conventional sense. The phone only transmits the rise and fall of the breeze. Locals visit the phone booth to talk to their dead and their missing.

I listened to audio of these conversations—sons and daughters crying as they spoke to their fathers, mothers. Husbands to their wives. Parents to their children. But one specific wife broke me. The one who for the longest time simply held the receiver to her ear. Breathing. And then said only two words to her husband. Quiet. Pleading.

She said, “. . . Come back.”


RECENTLY, I CALLED my son. He’s no longer a distant teen. He’s now in college studying electrical engineering. As an engineer in training, he’s being programmed to build, to progress, to innovate. He’s being trained to be a man of production in the way that society and industry drive our children to be. My son’s desire is to design semiconductor chips. I ask him if he thinks nuclear power is a good thing. He does. I share with him all I’ve learned about Hanford and my concerns with man’s ability to admit what he doesn’t know, and man’s inability to be honest when things go wrong. My son tells me about a new type of nuclear power, thorium, that cannot be weaponized, is not as toxic as uranium or plutonium, and generates less waste. He tells me that we know more than we did eighty years ago, that since WWII, twenty-two new elements have been added to the periodic table. He tells me that dams kill fish, and wind turbines kill birds, and fossil fuels, well fossil fuels will kill us all. “Mom,” he says, “it’s not about having no impact; it’s about reducing impact.”

I want to disagree with that statement. But an Amazon truck drives by. And I’m talking to him on the iPhone I’ve just charged. And later I’ll drive to the store for groceries before cooking over a gas stove. And I wonder if making progress is dependent on being realistic, on expecting imperfection.

I want to ask my son about his father. I want to ask him how J got leukemia, but I don’t want to burden him with asking a question that I’m starting to accept can’t be answered. I think about my son’s point about the advancement of knowledge over time. In the same amount of time since Oppenheimer created the atomic bomb, the five-year survival rate for leukemia has risen from 14 percent to 66 percent. I’ll never know if better odds could have changed our outcome.

Leukemia is of the words leukos and haima, meaning “white blood.” I think of a mother’s milk, a cloud rising from the desert, a churning river. In August 2022, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the U.S. Department of Energy announced an agreement to delay retrieval of the toxic waste leaking into the ground at Hanford for at least another two decades. Meanwhile, the Columbia River flows by, carrying the unseen. I know now that the past isn’t over; history isn’t behind us. It bleeds into our present, our future. The Hanford toxic cleanup, and my unanswered questions about J’s death—both will take longer than the life I have left to live.

Rachel Greenley is a Pacific Northwest writer with essays in the New York Times, River Teeth, and Brevity, among others. She is a recent Bennington College Writing Seminars graduate, and this essay is an excerpt from her thesis.