SPOKANE, Wash. – A federal jury Wednesday rejected an Idaho woman's claim that Cold War emissions from the Hanford nuclear weapons complex caused her thyroid cancer.
The case was one of the first to go to trial out of thousands of such claims against the contractors that once operated Hanford. Hanford produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, starting with the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb during World War II.
Shannon Rhodes' lawyer, Richard Eymann, said she was "devastated" by the verdict, which came six months after another jury deadlocked in her case.
Rhodes, 64, of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, was one of six "bellwether" cases thought to be representative of more than 2,000 people who claimed their health was damaged by Hanford releases.
In May, a federal jury ruled in favor of two of the plaintiffs and awarded them a total of about $545,000, far less than it cost to bring the case to trial. It rejected three plaintiffs' claims and split in Rhodes' case.
Kevin Van Wart, a lawyer for former Hanford contractors General Electric Co., the DuPont Co. and UNC Nuclear Inc., said the verdict shows that claims of health damage from small doses of radioactive iodine are unfounded.
"We continue to extend our sympathies to Mrs. Rhodes. We congratulate the jury for being able to separate a very natural sympathy ... from the question of causation," Van Wart said.
Eymann said the contractors' lawyers at the retrial were able to sow doubt in jurors' minds about how she got cancer.
"They were able to take her own medical history ... and raise all kinds of things that may have happened — radiation from X-rays and X-rays in tonsillectomies," Eymann said.
The plaintiffs are known as Hanford "downwinders" because many lived in areas downwind from radioactive and chemical releases.
Downwinders did not find out about the releases until the government declassified the information in 1986. Most of the releases involved radioactive iodine-131, which has been linked to diseases of the thyroid.
Rhodes drank milk from her family's cows during the mid-1940s, when Hanford's iodine-131 emissions were highest. Rhodes' form of cancer is untreatable and she is expected to live only one to three years, Eymann said.
The federal government, which would have been responsible for paying an award had Rhodes won, already has spent $100 million on legal costs for the defense and $40 million on a pair of radiation studies, Eymann said. Those studies reached different conclusions on whether emissions affected residents' health.