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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nuclear Plant Safety

Air Date: Week of

Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick broke the story last August of worker contamination at a uranium plant in Paducah (puh-DOO-kuh), Kentucky. He speaks with host Steve Curwood about decades of secrecy and cover-up at nuclear weapons factories.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The federal government recently admitted that for decades workers at many of its nuclear weapons facilities were exposed to high levels of radiation and cancer-causing chemicals. At the same time, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced plans to more than double spending on clean-up and medical screening at two uranium enrichment plants, one in Piketon, Ohio, the other in Paducah, Kentucky. For residents of Paducah, it was the latest ripple in an unsettling story they first heard about last August. That's when Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick broke the news of secrecy and cover-up that prevented workers from discovering their exposure to highly radioactive materials. Joby Warrick says he'd been investigating nuclear facilities when a source suggested that he look into Paducah.

WARRICK: We started going over some documents together, and one thing that jumped off the page at us was this -- the word "plutonium." We saw some indications of plutonium contamination in the plant and off-site, and this is a real surprise to us. Because as far as we knew, there was never plutonium at Paducah. There's no reason for it to be there.

CURWOOD: So why would there be plutonium in Paducah?

WARRICK: It turns out that for a period of about 20 years, the government tired to economize on its uranium stockpile by recycling uranium that had already been used elsewhere, and basically in plutonium bomb factories. They took this used stuff and would feed it right back into this uranium plant; and as it turned out, this used uranium contained not only plutonium but a whole suite of other very serious, very radioactive isotopes that are much more dangerous than uranium.

CURWOOD: Now, workers didn't know about this. How were you able to get a hold of the studies that show that this was going on?

WARRICK: Well, this was something that required a lot of deep digging in archives, some records that had been recently declassified. It's not something that we could come across in reading public documents, for example, and EPA documents, clean-up documents for the plant. But in looking at some classified memos that had been declassified and released to us, we were able to piece together the whole history of this program that brought these contaminants to Paducah.

CURWOOD: Did you actually go down there at one point with a shovel, to find out what might be going on?

WARRICK: Yeah, we made a number of trips down there. But one of the early things we wanted to do was -- just sort of as a reality check -- to determine if this was still a problem, if it's something that an average person roaming around in the woods around the plant might encounter because we had seen there were reports of levels of plutonium off-site. So I went down there on a couple of occasions with Geiger counters and once with actually a little shovel and some sampling jars, and we just started taking samples. And we sent them to a lab for analysis. And sure enough, we found plutonium at levels hundreds of times above background and above the level that the government certifies as safe.

CURWOOD: Wow. So you took a chance yourself doing this, then.

WARRICK: A little more than we anticipated. We didn't expect to find the amounts that we did, and we tried to follow the rules and were very careful. But still, it was a little disconcerting when we found out that we'd actually been in some fairly contaminated areas.

CURWOOD: I mean, do I have this wrong? As I understand it, like a millionth of a gram of plutonium, if you inhale that, that's it. I mean, it's going to set off lung cancer, right?

WARRICK: If you inhaled that dose, yeah. There are some studies that show that even that small of a quantity of plutonium inhaled can cause the mutations of cells that will eventually lead to cancer. It's very dangerous stuff.

CURWOOD: So, as you started speaking to workers in Paducah, what kind of picture did they paint to you of work and worker exposure at the plant over the past 40 years?

WARRICK: The assumption by most of these workers, based on what they had been told by management, was this was a very safe working environment. Workers were literally told that the materials they were using were safe enough to eat, and we had many workers who told us of managers who would actually eat the stuff, this uranium powder that would come in for processing. They'd sprinkle some on their food, or they'd put it on a finger and lick it, just to illustrate that this stuff was completely harmless. So because of this, workers were not concerned when, over the years, they began to notice this heavy dust in these working environments getting onto their clothes, and coming home with it on their skin. And even sometimes getting in their food. Many stories from workers who had talked about waking up with their bedsheets stained with this green or black powdery dust that they worked in every day.

CURWOOD: And of course, there was a little bit of plutonium in that. But they didn't know that, did they?

WARRICK: A little bit of plutonium. And again, this was not realized by the rank and file, the workers, until decades later.

CURWOOD: Let's step back for a moment. Help me understand what this plant in Paducah meant to the people there.

WARRICK: Well, this was a fairly isolated and impoverished region of western Kentucky. Its claim to fame is that it had a vice president, Mr. Alban Barkley, who was the vice president under Truman. And one of the things he was able to do for this part of his state during his vice presidency is to convince the Atomic Energy Commission to build this uranium enrichment facility there. So it was by far the largest employer. At any time, a couple thousand people were employed there and in all kinds of ancillary jobs, where people would come in for contract work. And it was by far the best paying job, and people were very proud to work there and very proud of this opportunity.

CURWOOD: Joby, who knew that there were much more toxic and radioactive substances than uranium, the plutonium, the neptunium, and the other kind of exotic-sounding, what do you call them? Trans-uranic metals?

WARRICK: Trans-uranics. It's a whole set of radioactive elements that are more radioactive than uranium. But yes, there was very specific knowledge about these contaminants as late, excuse me, as early as the late 1950s, and we were able to document this from memos that we received that showed discussions by some of the plant managers about the contaminants in this material, and what to do about them. Their big concern early on was, is this going to contaminate the product that we're making? Not is this going to be a threat to the workers? And their discussions about hazardous working environments, where you had this one very telling memo from the early 1960s where a doctor is saying, look, we may have a problem with contamination with these workers, but we don't know it because we're not allowed to test them because the plant is afraid to alarm these workers and they're worried about some kind of hazardous duty pay these workers might demand if they know they're working with more dangerous materials.

CURWOOD: So the bosses knew and didn't want to tell the workers.

WARRICK: Yeah. There's no indication in the record that anybody was told in terms of the regular workers at least until the early 1990s, when some memos were circulated to some of the senior union officials saying, look, there may be other things in the plant -- this kind of vague language about trans-uranic materials, which most of the workers wouldn't understand. But not until this past summer, when our reports came out, did workers really begin to understand the gravity of the situation.

CURWOOD: Joby, did any of the workers suspect that something was wrong here?

WARRICK: Well, one in particular did. It's a man named Joe Harding, who was an employee at the plant for more than 20 years. And he began to notice through the years a whole range of unusual symptoms in his own body. He developed some weird spots and rashes that just covered him from head to foot. He had fingernail-like growths coming out of his palms and of his knuckles. He developed stomach cancer that eventually killed him. And he began to bring his health concerns to the attention of the managers at the time and to the government, saying, look, there are serious exposures going on in this plant. Workers are breathing this uranium dust, this radioactive dust. It's going home with them. I think this is causing my own illness. The government did not take these claims very seriously at the time. It launched an investigation based on what Joe Harding said, and essentially dismissed all his concerns and said that radiation levels at the plant were not unusual, and that if Mr. Harding developed cancer it was likely due to his diet of eating country ham. It turns out that, after Harding died, his attorney and his widow had the body exhumed and the bones tested for uranium, and the content of his body showed uranium levels of about 100,000 times higher than you'd expect in a normal person. But the government continued to resist any, you know, resist compensation for this widow, until just two years ago she settled out of court for $12,000. Just a settlement for all the back worker's comp that he would have been paid. It was a real travesty.

CURWOOD: What's been the response in Paducah?

WARRICK: There has been some elation on the part of workers and their families. They're very excited about just the acknowledgment, really, more than the money, that the government's finally saying, look, this was real, and we owe you an apology and a full explanation at the very least. Some are very happy to see some money coming because some of these families have been carrying some heavy financial burdens in terms of health costs that weren't covered by worker's comp or anything else. And just in the case of the workers, there are also a number of people who would just like to see this problem go away. The Chamber of Commerce is upset that Paducah's getting a bad name, and they're afraid they're not going to attract any jobs. There are lots of old-timers who just don't believe that radiation is a serious problem, and just think that the stories are exaggerated or they're just not that serious.

CURWOOD: Now, how does the local response compare to the national response you got when you started digging in this?

WARRICK: The initial stories we did really touched off a firestorm on Capitol Hill. There were immediate calls for hearings. There have been a total of three hearings and the Congress has gotten very involved in this issue of accountability by the government at these DOE plants and also in demanding that workers be taken care of. And this whole issue of compensation for workers has matured in the last year, in a way that we really never anticipated. And now the White House is talking about, for the first time, getting some kind of compensation for workers at all these plants who may have been injured by their work in helping make the United States safe from Cold War attacks.

CURWOOD: Joby, looking back, who was lying and how long did they lie?

WARRICK: What we've been able to determine, and that's always a difficult question to know who to blame in a situation like this, there was certainly the government. The Atomic Energy Commission sort of started this thing in motion, you know, began these plants and imposed this culture of secrecy and expediency in developing nuclear weapons. And at the same time they farmed out the responsibility to some very big corporations and told them, look, do what it takes, you know, meet these quotas. Get the job done. You know, don't come up to us with problems. And this is the environment that created this whole sort of nightmare for a number of workers, in which they did their jobs without really knowing what they were being exposed to, and didn't learn about problems until decades later. So how do you parse that out? I mean, who was ultimately responsible? Probably it was both, I think.

CURWOOD: Now the government is admitting that workers at many other sites around the country may have been exposed to high levels of radiation and cancer-causing chemicals, as well as the people in Paducah. But I'm wondering, Joby, do you think there's still more we don't know about? Do you think there are still other untold stories of hazards that are going to surface, or have yet to surface?

WARRICK: Yeah, absolutely. We get calls daily from people and plants and places all over the country -- those that are operating today and some that closed years ago and had fairly small and obscure roles in building nuclear weapons. But the theme that the workers bring to us is, it's generally the same, that production and sort of national security took precedence over safety concerns. And perhaps that was the necessary attitude of some of these places at the time. But these workers all feel very strongly that they've been the guinea pigs in this vast effort to build bombs, and that they think the time is now for people to recognize this and take care of them.

CURWOOD: Joby Warrick is a reporter with the Washington Post who broke the Paducah, Kentucky, story. Thanks for joining us, Joby.

WARRICK: Thanks, Steve. I enjoyed it.



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