During World War II, the U.S. government constructed the Hanford Nuclear Weapons Reservation in the state of Washington. The facility’s mission was to provide plutonium for military purposes. Because it did not have the expertise to operate Hanford, the government engaged DuPont Co. to operate it. DuPont did so as a patriotic duty and neither sought nor earned a profit from operating Hanford. Hanford ultimately helped to make the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. General Electric took over operation of Hanford from DuPont, in 1946 and served in that role for many years, also without seeking a profit. As part of the plutonium-production process, the Hanford facility emitted I-131, a fission byproduct known as radioiodine. I-131 was known in the 1940s and thereafter as having the potential to cause adverse health effects in humans. Although emission of I-131 continued for many years, a 1988 study concluded that most of the emissions occurred from 1944 to 1946. More than 2,000 persons eventually sued DuPont, General Electric, and other defendants, contending that the I-131 emissions at Hanford caused them to experience various forms of cancer.
Because the plaintiffs claimed to have been harmed by a nuclear incident (the I-131 emissions), the cases were filed under a federal statute, the Price-Anderson Act (PAA). That statute allows parties harmed in nuclear incidents to sue potentially liable private companies. However, it calls for government indemnification for liable private companies in order to provide them an incentive to participate in the nuclear industry. The PAA gives federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over claims arising from nuclear incidents but provides that the substantive legal rules governing the cases are the rules set forth in state law. The many Hanford-related cases were consolidated in a single federal court. A critical issue was whether the defendants should be held strictly liable under Washington law. Did strict liability apply?