IN OUR OPINION
February 19, 2000
BREACH OF TRUST
Federal officials misused Paducah plant
A Department of Energy "fact sheet" recently distributed to employees of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant sheds new light on federal officials' betrayal of the trust of plant workers and the community during the era of Cold War nuclear weapons production.
The fact sheet makes it clear the government secretly used the uranium enrichment facility to handle a number of potentially hazardous tasks, including the burial of whole nuclear weapons - "minus the nuclear package" - and the possible smelting of reservoirs of radioactive tritium.
This information was kept from most plant employees and the public, leaving the misleading impression that the facility was engaged solely in the enrichment of uranium.
Moreover, as recently as 1991, testing of wastewater on the plant grounds reportedly revealed the presence of tritium, but there is no record of the public being informed of this disturbing finding. This suggests that even after the Cold War had come to an end, the federal government was still keeping Paducah in the dark about potential radioactive hazards.
In fact, federal officials have yet to remove the veil of nuclear secrecy from some of the activities that occurred at the gaseous diffusion plant. In the wake of the filing of an employee false-claims lawsuit, bits of information have dribbled out, causing surprise and dismay among current and former plant employees who had mistakenly assumed they were aware of all the risks they were exposed to on the job.
Less than eight months ago, DOE officials said there was no evidence beryllium, a highly toxic metal used in nuclear weapons, was handled at the Paducah plant. Now the agency is saying the machine shop at the plant may have done beryllium coating work for other agencies.
The DOE also now admits the machine shop built nuclear weapons parts. This activity was kept under cover, again leaving the Paducah community in the dark about the full extent of its role in the nuclear industry.
We understand the need for secrecy, especially at a time when the nation was engaged in a mortal struggle with the Soviet Union. However, other U.S. communities with bomb-making facilities were generally aware of their purpose and so had some understanding of the risks involved in the process. The government chose to mislead the people of Paducah, exploiting and abusing their trust.
The facts slowly emerging from ongoing federal investigations of contamination at the gaseous diffusion plant show the facility was used practically as an unlicensed nuclear dump as well as a workshop for potentially dangerous tasks.
This underlines why Americans' trust in government has almost completely eroded over the past 30 years. The secrecy and deception in Paducah again highlight the callous indifference with which the federal government has, on more than a few occasions, treated citizens who placed their faith in its good intentions.
Even so, there's no point dwelling on past betrayals. The government now has an opportunity to show good faith by finally admitting its transgressions in Paducah, cleaning up the natural area it despoiled and dealing honestly with current and former plant workers who have serious health concerns.
But it should be emphasized that few people in this community will ever take federal officials' words at face value again. Soothing words must be backed up by aggressive remedial action.