Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hiroshima Commemoration: Living Happily Near a Nuclear Trash Heap

Guest Report by Dick Thompson of Time
May 11, 1992

DR. WILLIAM REID WAS NEW TO Oak Ridge, Tenn., and disturbed by what he was seeing. Soon after he joined the staff of Methodist Medical Center in early 1991, he was treating four patients with kidney cancers, an unusually large number for one small area, and a cluster of other people who appeared to have weakened ability to ward off infections. Reid suspected that something in the local environment was attacking the residents' immune systems.

It didn't take much imagination for Reid to figure out possible sources of contamination. For 49 years, federal installations at Oak Ridge have manufactured the innards of nuclear bombs. In the process, the plants have produced -- and carelessly disposed of -- mountains of radioactive material and hazardous wastes. Even the U.S. government admits the Oak Ridge labs have littered the surrounding countryside with everything from asbestos and mercury to enriched uranium. The story is much the same at all the country's now notorious nuclear weapons plants, scattered from Hanford, Wash., to Los Alamos, N. Mex., to the Savannah River plant. The Department of Energy has launched a major clean-up effort, but it might be too late to prevent a host of medical problems in people who have lived in the shadow of the toxic plants for decades.

Could a health disaster be hitting Oak Ridge? Reid was determined to find out.

...Still, Oak Ridge is no ordinary place. Earlier this year a visitor to one of the nuclear facilities accidentally turned off the main road. When he tried to leave, alarms rang, and the government bought his radioactive rental car on the spot. In the reservation surrounding the plants, creatures ranging from deer to frogs and water fleas have all excited Geiger counters. Contaminated trees, which take up nuclear liquids through their roots, have been chopped down and buried lest the autumn winds spread radioactive leaves. And the streams have carried toxic chemicals and nuclear products -- including strontium, tritium and plutonium -- for distances of 64 km (40 miles). Posted along the town's creek are NO FISHING signs and Department of Energy warnings: no water contact.

No one worried much about environmental contamination when Oak Ridge quietly sprang up as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. By 1944, two years after construction started, Oak Ridge had become Tennessee's fifth largest city, and it was all behind a guarded fence. At peak production, the "secret city" used 20% more power than New York City.

After the products of the Manhattan Project exploded over Japan and ended the war, the mania for secrecy diminished. The fences surrounding the city came down, and Oak Ridge started appearing on maps. But its work was far from done. Once the arms race with the Soviets began, Oak Ridgers hunkered down to help produce an arsenal of American hydrogen bombs. A recently declassified report done for the Department of Energy found that the weapons factories "operated in an atmosphere of high urgency" that resulted in astounding environmental and health assaults.

Between 1951 and '84, the Oak Ridge plants pumped 10.2 million L (2.7 million gal.) of concentrated acids and nuclear wastes into open-air ponds, called the "witches' cauldron," from which the chemicals would evaporate or leach into a nearby stream. Barrels of strange brews and experimental gases, some so volatile that they would explode on contact with oxygen, were sealed and dropped into a quarry pool. A neatly stacked collection of 76,600 barrels and oil drums, filled with nuclear sludge and now rusting, is larger than the main building at Oak Ridge. Millions of cubic meters of toxic material, including pcbs and cobalt 60, were dumped in trenches and covered with soil. In 1983 the Department of Energy acknowledged that 1.1 million kg (2.4 million lbs.) of mercury had been lost. It went up the smokestacks, drained into the soil and flowed into the stream that runs through town. After that revelation, mercury was found at the city's two high schools and in the blood of workers at one of the atomic-research sites. An unknown amount of enriched uranium went out smokestacks.

....The culture of secrecy and concern about job security may have kept information from health investigators. Says Robert Keil, president of the Oak Ridge Atomic Trades and Labor Council: "One thing that kept people from coming forward is that they were afraid they might jeopardize their security clearance by talking about something that was classified."

The end of the cold war provides an opportunity to get at the truth. At Oak Ridge, as at other weapons labs, the threat of a nuclear conflict has been replaced by the threat of massive layoffs. The big job in town now seems to be cleaning up the nuclear trash heap. More than $1.5 billion has already been spent on detoxifying Oak Ridge, and the end isn't in sight. The government is beginning an exhaustive medical survey of the people who live around Oak Ridge, including the women. The Centers for Disease Control has been asked to look into Reid's allegations.

But confident of the outcome, the people of Oak Ridge still sleep soundly. They have lived with danger for decades and see no reason to start panicking now.

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