From 1952 to 1954, a US government nuclear facility in Richland, Washington, called Hanford Reservation, was leaking huge amounts of radioactivity into the air. The radiation exposure to local residents was more per hour than is considered safe for a whole year. Concerned workers sent maps to the Atomic Energy Commission showing where the exposure was most dangerous so the residents could be evacuated or at least warned. The AEC didn’t want to create a fuss, so the maps were totally ignored.
At this same facility in 1949, scientists were wondering whether Soviet nuclear facilities could be detected by tracing their radiation leaks into the atmosphere. So to test the theory, they deliberately let loose a huge cloud of radioactive iodine 131 to see if they could monitor its travel through the air. Due to an unexpected change in weather, the cloud settled all over the town of Richland. The residents were never told about it. One of Hanford’s neighbors, who had his thyroid gland removed because it was killing him, surveyed 28 families living on a one-mile stretch of road near the reactors. He found that 27 of them had appalling medical histories including miscarriages, birth defects and cancer.
In order to be ‘safe,’ the dangerous reactors at Hanford, ones that dissolved spent fuel pellets and created concentrated plutonium, were only operated on days when the weather conditions were right to carry the radioactive gases emitted from the chimneys up and away, to some other location.
You may be wondering what kind of creatures were in charge of the facility, to let these things happen. So was I. But, what I found out is that they seem to have been truly concerned with public and employee safety. Unfortunately, these good-hearted guys consistently underestimated the dangers of radioactive material. At the time, there simply was not any information to indicate that low-level exposures would bring ill health so many years later.