KENNEWICK — A new report suggests that American Indians may have suffered more exposure to radiation from the Hanford nuclear reservation than was previously estimated.
"There’s always been that big concern," said Bill Burke, one of the leaders of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon.
Indians may have eaten more fish from the Columbia River, which borders Hanford, than white farmers and other people living in the area and prepared it in a way that exposed them to more potentially cancer-causing radiation, according to a draft report prepared for the U.S. government by Risk Assessment Corp.
The federal government spent $25 million in the 1990s to develop comprehensive estimates of the amounts and types of radiation people were exposed to during the four decades that Hanford made plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
The study was presented Wednesday at the Inter-Tribal Council for Hanford Health Projects.
No new estimates have been made on the potential exposure levels for tribal members, but the study did conclude that earlier estimates may have been too low.
Much of the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction project was devoted to estimating the exposure rates for people living downwind from the nuclear reservation when radioactive iodine was released into the atmosphere in the 1940s and early 1950s.
But the project also examined the contamination in the Columbia River by radioactive isotopes from water that had been used to cool fuel rods at the plutonium-making nuclear reactors.
The dose reconstruction project concluded, and the new study confirmed, that most of the danger from the river contamination would be from eating fish that had accumulated radiation.
The project assumed that people ate about 90 pounds of fish per year, said Ed Liebow, a cultural anthropologist and consultant on the new study.
But historians and representatives of tribes that fished downstream from Hanford said fish were so central to the diet of many Columbia River Indians that they might have been consuming as much as 1 1/2pounds daily.
"We agree it is an upper boundary, but it is realistic," Liebow said.
The fish estimates in the dose reconstruction project did not consider radioactive strontium which concentrates in the bones of the fish rather than the flesh.
"How fish was consumed was different from tribe to tribe," Liebow said.
But typically during the fishing season, Indian families would camp along the river and smoke on alder frames the fish they had caught. The leftover parts might be put in a stew pot and boiled to have food ready for people working around the clock, and boiling fish releases radioactive strontium from the bones.
In the winter, dried fish would often be stewed before being eaten, he said.
The new report looks at fish consumption and radiation releases from 1944 to 1972. Releases were particularly high during the 1960s when many of Hanford’s nine reactors were operating.
New estimates suggest that about two-thirds of the fish in a typical Columbia River Indian diet would be from salmon or steelhead returning to the river from the Pacific Ocean.
Anadromous, or migrating, fish might not have been as heavily contaminated as species that live in the river year-round, such as trout and whitefish.
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