Tom Bailie farms wheat and beans in Washington State, and he is as happy there "as any man can be." His family has farmed near the Columbia River for three generations. But if he is honest with you, Bailie will say that the land he lives on will probably kill him sometime soon. "That's the way I feel."
With hardened hands, smashed thumbs and a stooped posture that speaks of hours heaving hay, Bailie, like some figure in a Frank Capra film, came to Congress yesterday to tell his story, one darkened by fear and the unknown. He lives downwind from the Hanford "N" reactor, a dual-purpose facility that makes weapons-grade plutonium and generates electricity. Because it lacks a steel and concrete "containment" dome, many critics believe it is the reactor most likely to become an American Chernobyl. To moderate its nuclear reaction, the "N" reactor uses the sort of graphite that burned out of control in Chernobyl.
The specter of a future disaster is not all that troubles people in the region. Errors of the past are in the ground. According to documents released recently by the Department of Energy, other plants on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation released dangerous amounts of radioactive iodine and ruthenium into the atmosphere from the mid-1940s to the '60s.
It was not as if the existence of these plants was a secret. But no one knew until recently about the scale of the radioactive emissions. Said Bailie, "It always seemed that a lot of people in the area were sick -- everything from little stuff to cancer, a lot of cancer -- but it's only now that some people are wondering out loud, 'Why are so many people dying?' "
In yesterday's citizens' hearing at the Rayburn Building organized by the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), Bailie was just one of a half-dozen people who testified about health problems in areas that surround nuclear plants.
All the witnesses, including Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Robert Alvarez of the Environmental Policy Institute, called on the Department of Energy to set up an independent health study of residents and workers at the reactors. Alvarez compared the nuclear industries here and in the Soviet Union: "Both operate in secrecy, both sloppily, and both hide their mistakes and their victims."
Energy Secretary John S. Herrington last month ordered a six-member board of review to examine the situation at Hanford. At a recent congressional hearing, Hanford official John Hunter said filtering devices on the "N" plant would be able to withstand an accident on the scale of the one at Three Mile Island.
But Bailie sees only "more and more sickness. At this point no one can prove that all these people with cancer got it from the plants, but the time is past for turning your head away." He said he gets anonymous phone calls at night saying, "Your children could disappear tomorrow." Many people in the area, he said, "depend on those plants for their livelihood. And there's the patriotic part, always has been. They're making material for bombs to keep the Russians in their place."
Bailie and his neighbors call themselves "downwinders."
His father has had colon cancer. Four uncles and an aunt have had cancer. His grandfather Leon died of cancer of the liver and his grandmother died of cancer of the colon. When Bailie was a child he suffered from vomiting, asthma, polio. "I missed a lot of school," he said. "I can't bring myself to go to a hospital anymore." No one knows if any of these illnesses have anything to do with the reactors. "But it doesn't go away, the sicknesses. In the last three weeks I've buried three farmer friends and my aunt was just diagnosed for terminal cancer."
The Hanford "N" reactor appeared in most major newspapers and television news programs after the news from the Ukraine.
"I had no real emotional reaction to the Chernobyl accident," Bailie said. "I thought to myself, the Russians kept it a secret from their people for three days; the government kept secrets from us here for 30 years. I thought to myself, they'll have problems with their crops and with their health, but they'll get along, 'cause we get along. Maybe I'm getting numb to all the death and the dying."
Bailie's wife has wanted to get out since 1982. "But it's tough to leave," he said. "Farm values have dropped 50 percent in the last couple of years."
Bailie said the improved filtration system installed in the early '60s gives his children better odds than older generations of avoiding radiation-related illnesses. But "don't think I don't worry," he said. "The problem is not knowing what's going on.
"What I want is simple," he said. "I want to farm without the threat of radiation. I want to raise my family where I was raised. And I want to live a long life. But I don't believe I will. That may be too much to expect."