The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun

Tuesday, May 09, 2000 Paducah, Kentucky

Evidence points to safety compromises

The president of the plant guard workers' union at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant offered a disturbing assessment of the recent discovery of nuclear bomb casings in a scrap yard on the plant grounds.

"It's just another piece of proof that points to the fact they (federal officials) don't know what they've got out here," said John Driskill. "They don't know the nature and extent of the materials they have at this plant."

A series of revelations over the past nine months essentially confirms Driskill's opinion. Officials with the Department of Energy have denied or downplayed a variety of alleged contamination threats at the plant, only to backtrack later when evidence surfaced indicating the threats were both real and significant.

That leaves plant employees and people who live near the facility to wonder what's next.

Recall that just a few months ago, DOE declared there was no evidence beryllium, a highly toxic metal, was used at the Paducah plant. Then the agency issued a memo to employees stating that beryllium could have been used in building or dismantling nuclear weapons in Paducah.

A DOE spokesman admitted the agency was trying to "reconstruct history" to determine the extent of beryllium use.

The memo was distributed a few weeks before the Sun reported that beryllium had been found in more than 100 groundwater samples taken at or near the plant site. Some of these samples contained concentrations of beryllium almost 25 times higher than the standard for safe drinking water.

The latest revelation concerns aluminum bomb casings. A DOE investigative team found portions of 17 bomb casings stacked in a scrap yard on the north side of the uranium enrichment plant.

Although the casings apparently do not pose a health hazard, the fact they were not properly disposed of in a classified landfill provides more evidence that, during the Cold War, safety was not a high priority for DOE and plant contractors.

A logical assumption is that the shield of national security also shielded the federal government and former plant contractors from accountability for their handling of safety and environmental issues.

The Paducah plant's official mission was to enrich uranium. It now seems clear its secret, unofficial role involved the disposal and recycling of nuclear weapons parts. And it's indisputable that the Paducah facility was used as an unregulated dump for radioactive materials produced at weapons facilities.

Secrecy was a necessity when the United States was staring down the Soviet Union's nuclear barrel. Unfortunately, secrecy allowed the Paducah plant's operators and overseers to set their own standards of safety and health.

The picture that is slowly emerging now that the Cold War is over and the plant's operations are in private hands indicates that the blanket of national security concealed casual attitudes about safety. The extent to which worker safety and public health may have been compromised still isn't clear the secrecy mandate left gaping holes in the records but a growing impression is that those in charge of the plant and the nuclear weapons program during that era put national security well above all other concerns, including the health of workers.

Describing working conditions at the plant 30 years ago, Harold Hargan, a former employee, told the Sun: "Ignorance and apathy were rampant."

It needs noting that Hargan is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against former plant operators. But the credibility of his description of the plant's working environment has been enhanced by evidence of such sloppy practices as stacking nuclear bomb casings in a scrap yard.

If the government permitted this kind of activity in Paducah, it's worth wondering what else it allowed or ignored.

The federal government must get to the bottom of the Cold War secrecy and finally give a full accounting of what happened in Paducah. With a few possible exceptions, national security is no longer a valid excuse for hiding the truth.

Someone must be held accountable if workers and residents were unknowingly exposed to serious health risks.