Government wasn't a bystander
Two new lawsuits filed on behalf of former workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant trace responsibility for radioactive contamination at the facility to its obvious source: the federal government.
The lawsuits allege that exposure to radioactive substances on the job caused the workers to develop rare brain tumors. Federal officials and the companies hired to run the uranium enrichment plant deliberately kept workers in the dark about the risks they faced in handling contaminated materials, the suits claim.
We're not endorsing the lawsuits or taking sides on the question of whether the health of plant employees was harmed by exposure to radiation. A hope is that the legal process will deliver a satisfactory answer to that question.
However, we believe it's clear the federal government was not the innocent dupe of the contractors that operated the plant. Earlier lawsuits brought by workers against plant contractors alleged the companies defrauded the federal government. Those suits claim the contractors put the health of employees at risk in order to meet production goals.
Again, we're not passing judgment on the validity of the allegations, but if fraud was committed — if workers indeed were not informed of serious health risks — the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Department of Energy, must share the legal blame.
In truth, the federal agencies should shoulder most of the responsibility, since they served as the overseers of the Cold War nuclear weapons program that, according to a number of accounts, brought highly radioactive substances such as plutonium and neptunium to Paducah.
One of the lawsuits names Energy Secretary Bill Richardson as a defendant. This is appropriate, given that Richardson has presided over DOE investigations of the contamination at the enrichment plant, and has concluded the government wrongly kept information from workers.
During a visit to Paducah last fall, Richardson apologized for the government's role in concealing from workers the possible presence of plutonium in uranium processed at the plant. "From the evidence that has been uncovered recently, it is obvious that the U.S. government was not forthcoming about possible exposure to plutonium, and that was wrong," he said. "We should have been straight with our employees."
Richardson added, "It is time the federal government accept its responsibility."
The two lawsuits filed this week make that same argument. The workers involved in the suits are trying to establish that the AEC and the DOE covered some of the plant's operations with a veil of secrecy, thus leaving uninformed employees vulnerable to hazardous working conditions.
Documents show the government knew about potential health hazards at the plant as early as 1957.
A special DOE investigative team found a four-page memo describing a March 1960 meeting at which AEC officials discussed health risks confronting plant workers who handled recycled uranium contaminated with neptunium. The contaminated uranium was shipped to Paducah from the government's nuclear weapons facility in Hanford, Wash.
Also, DOE officials have acknowledged that groundwater contamination at the plant site caused by beryllium, a highly toxic metal, may have come from secret work involving the dismantling of deactivated nuclear warheads.
Private companies did not have broad authority to authorize secret work on nuclear weapons. Someone in the federal government must have made these decisions, and left it to the contractors to execute them.
In any event, the AEC and later, the DOE, knew that workers in Paducah had been exposed to transuranics. No evidence has surfaced yet that shows the government attempted to inform workers of the risk. Secretary Richardson put it mildly when he said the government was not "forthcoming."
It's possible the lawsuits will reveal that plant operators were indifferent to the health of workers. But it's already clear the government abdicated its responsibility to tell the truth to plant workers and the people of Paducah.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuits, that point must be hammered home to ensure the federal government doesn't repeat the past in other unsuspecting communities.