Thursday, March 30, 2000
Secrecy took precedence over plant safety
Indifferent. Irresponsible. Callous. These words come to mind in reviewing retired workers' descriptions of conditions at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant during the period from the plant's opening in 1952 to the mid-1980s, when the Cold War was winding down.
If the workers' accounts are accurate — and there is substantial evidence to support their claims — the plant's operators and their overseer, the federal government, displayed varying degrees of indifference, irresponsibility and callousness in dealing with worker safety and environmental issues at the uranium enrichment facility.
Apparently safety was not a top priority at the plant during the Cold War era, although the risks of radioactive contamination certainly were not unknown. The idea of protecting the environment seems to have been a foreign concept. Plant employees and the federal officials who regulated their activities used the site as a dumping ground for radioactive waste and other hazardous materials.
In fact, the federal government used Paducah as an unregulated dump for other nuclear facilities. The community knew, of course, that uranium was being enriched here, but the government did not advise workers and the plant's neighbors that materials contaminated with highly radioactive plutonium and neptunium were shipped to Paducah.
It's pretty clear now that, in the Cold War-era nuclear program, secrecy ranked far above safety on the government's priority list.
Safety lapses were common in the plant environment described by former workers who spoke recently to the Sun's Joe Walker. It needs emphasizing that several of these workers are plaintiffs in a $10 billion federal lawsuit that alleges two former plant contractors, Union Carbide and Lockheed Martin, jeopardized the health of plant employees by putting profits ahead of safety. The two companies have denied the allegations contained in the lawsuit.
However, investigations conducted by the federal Department of Energy tend to support at least some of the workers' claims.
For instance, the DOE has said workers at the plant's C-400 building were exposed to toxic trichloroethylene and radioactive contamination.
Documents show that problems with neptunium contamination were detected as early as 1957. A report written in 1960 by a medical researcher working for the federal government predicted that questions surrounding the exposure of Paducah workers to neptunium "will inevitably come more to the forefront."
Workers involved in the federal lawsuit say that the management of the plant was lax and that safety rules were unevenly enforced. Describing the handling of radioactive substances, Harold Hargan said, "Ignorance and apathy were rampant."
Some of the workers recall that liquid samples of uranium were diluted and then dumped in a holding pond. For years, chemical drainage from the C-400 building flowed directly into the soil — a fact that may explain why several private wells near the plant were contaminated with trichloroethylene and technetium.
These accounts make it easier to understand why the federal government will spend somewhere around $1 billion cleaning up the plant site. Growing evidence indicates the plant produced soil and groundwater pollution nearly as routinely as it produced enriched uranium.
Given that the federal government is virtually immune from lawsuits, the former plant contractors will have to bear the full brunt of litigation arising from the alleged safety lapses.
The contractors should be held accountable if workers were exposed without their knowledge to dangerous working conditions. However, the ultimate accountability for the uranium enrichment plant rested with the federal government.
Federal officials served as overseers and regulators. The federal government called the shots, and monitored the results.
If working conditions at the plant were, in fact, unsafe, we are forced to conclude that this was acceptable to the federal government. The disturbing bottom line here may be that the government of all the people did not serve the people of Paducah; it deliberately exploited them.