"They Lied to Us"

  • In the rolling countryside of southwestern Ohio, the leaves have begun to turn to brilliant reds, ochers and yellows. But in the Cincinnati suburb of South Greenhills, some ten miles east of the Department of Energy's Fernald nuclear weapons plant, Charles Zinser, 38, was preoccupied, unmindful of the glorious surroundings. Zinser recalled how beginning in 1984 he had rented a vegetable garden near the plant. He often took his two young sons along as he worked. Two years later, both were found to have cancer. Samuel, then eight, had leukemia, and Louis, two, had part of a leg amputated.

    Zinser contends that tests of his garden soil show it was contaminated with enriched uranium 235. And the doctor who tested his son's amputated leg told him it contained ten times more uranium than would be expected to accumulate naturally over a lifetime. "The doctor said Louis could have eaten dirt and not got that much," says Zinser. "He said the only way he could have got that much would have been to breathe it."

    Across the country, the outrage and sense of disbelief are mounting. The nation's production-obsessed, scandalously shortsighted nuclear weapons industry is virtually under siege by its critics. And no wonder. Operating secretively behind a screen of national security for more than four decades, the bombmakers have single-mindedly, sometimes recklessly, pursued their goal: to churn out all the warheads the military believes, perhaps prudently, are needed to maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Now they are being charged with ignoring the dangers that their operation of deteriorating facilities may have inflicted on the very citizens they were supposed to protect. Ohio's Senator John Glenn summed up the situation with ironic clarity: "We are poisoning our people in the name of national security."

    Whether left unsupervised by lax Government officials or, worse yet, ordered by them to stifle their own concerns, the private contractors who ran the major U.S. weapons plants released huge quantities of radioactive particles into the air and dumped tons of potentially cancer-inducing refuse into flowing creeks and leaking pits, contaminating underground water supplies in a seepage that cannot be stopped. No one knows how many people may have been needlessly afflicted with such ailments as cancer, birth deformities and thyroid deficiencies -- and no one in relevant offices seemed to care. Why? Because a legalistic, bureaucratic shuffle left no one responsible for whatever human and environmental damage was inflicted.

    Only recently, that attitude has begun to change. The Department of Energy in 1977 took over responsibility for the nuclear weapons network, which had long been overseen by the now defunct Atomic Energy Commission, and finally < seems bent on reform. Information about the weapons-production system has emerged that only begins to suggest the past callousness of both Government officials and private contractors. At the sprawling Hanford plutonium- processing complex in Washington State, managers once deliberately released 5,050 curies of radioactive iodine into the air. The reason: to see if they could reduce the amount of time uranium must be cooled before being processed into plutonium, presumably to increase production.

    Operating well out of the public eye and, at least for a time, beyond Washington's view as well, technicians running an aging reactor at the Savannah River plant near Aiken, S.C., made errors in 1970 leading to the partial melting of a fuel rod. If the process had not been checked, it could eventually have led to a disaster on the order of the 1979 debacle at Three Mile Island. That frightening episode jolted the entire nation and inspired sharp reforms in the U.S. civilian nuclear power industry.

    Despite the claims, there is no undisputed evidence that radioactive materials released into the environment around DOE facilities have harmed anyone. In general, such contamination is believed to fall into a category that, according to Jacob Fabrikant, an expert on the biological effects of radiation, is "far too low to pose a risk to the health of individuals." Yet there is agreement that radiation doses of more than 50 rems, a measure of the effect of radiation on the body, can sicken and even kill. It may do so by changing the chemical makeup of cells. A large enough dose can cause genetic defects and lead to cancer. Massive exposure in a brief period can result in radiation sickness and death within a short time.

    As poisonous wastes from the weapons plants pile up alarmingly and no proven solution to their safe disposal is found, yet another dilemma looms. Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus, a former Secretary of the Interior, last week ordered state police to stop any shipments of nuclear military wastes from entering the state. Since 1952 some 75% of the defense industry's low-level radioactive brew has been deposited in 120,000 drums and 11,000 boxes on a "temporary" basis at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, waiting for a new federal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.Mex., to open. There, the stuff will be buried in 3,000-ft.-deep salt formations. But no one knows when WIPP, started in 1983, will be ready. "If we can't resolve what we're going to do with the waste, then we have no business generating it," declared Andrus.

    Far too belatedly, the whistle has been blown on Government complacency, recklessness and secrecy. Under assault from congressional critics, citizen lawsuits and probing reporters, the private contractors and their see-no-evil federal supervisors have admitted to shocking practices and promised to clean up after their predecessors. That effort could cost as much as $100 billion and take 20 to 30 years. Unwilling to spend money to keep their aging equipment in repair or to plan for orderly replacements, they have allowed their network of plants to become so disabled as to threaten the very reason for their creation: the maintenance of a credible nuclear deterrent.

    The four biggest weapons plants in the U.S. have now been shut down. They are the pioneering Hanford facility in Washington, where eight reactors have been deactivated and the remaining one is on indefinite standby; the Savannah River complex, where all three operational reactors are down, knocking out the only means of producing tritium, a hydrogen isotope that boosts the explosive power of nearly all the 22,000 U.S. nuclear warheads; the plutonium-processing plant at Rocky Flats near Boulder, Colo.; and the deceptively named Feed Materials Production Center, in Fernald, Ohio, where some workers are striking for higher wages and safer conditions.

    Energy Secretary John Herrington readily admits that safety fell by the wayside in the past as "things got too cozy" with plant contractors. Despite the growing public outcry, however, he plans to restart one tritium-producing reactor at Savannah River in December and another early next year. Herrington, a lawyer and Reagan appointee, has taken commendable steps to infuse a safety- conscious attitude at the weapons facilities. But he has failed to heed complaints from environmentalists and Congressmen who believe the plant should remain closed until DOE files an environmental-impact statement on the 300- sq.-mi. facility. If he does not do so, the National Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group, threatens to go to court to keep the plant from operating.

    An extended shutdown could cause real trouble. If tritium production at Savannah River is not resumed within a year or so, says Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Robert Barker, "we will begin to disarm unilaterally." Even as such alarms are being sounded, however, there is little sense of urgency at the White House about either the danger to national security or the threat to people living in potentially irradiated environments near the DOE facilities. "The Energy Department is managing the situation very well," says B. Jay Cooper, a White House spokesman. Intent on keeping the issue from being politicized in the election campaign, another White House source was more candid, telling the New York Times: "If the news is going to be really bad, don't you want to make it an Energy Department disaster rather than a White House disaster?"

    A bitter sense of betrayal, even among some defense-minded residents, has grown from the apparent aloofness of Washington officials to the perils that weapons production may pose to the health of innocent people living near the plants. And while studies are under way to assess radiation dosage inflicted on communities near some of the facilities and to find out what harm may have resulted, they will take years to complete. Meanwhile, the very uncertainty of the connection between radiation exposure and a variety of illnesses makes the future an agonizing mystery for many.

    "I don't believe much of what DOE says about what's going on here," says Steve Ritchie, a high school teacher in Idaho Falls, who is concerned about how the wastes piling up at the INEL site might affect nearby residents. "I don't think they're ever going to be honest." Boise State University Professor Michael Blain, who has studied the health impact of the Idaho repository on residents of Clark County near the site, contends that cancer deaths and breast malignancies there have run about twice the normal rate.

    Even as a newly aroused DOE bureaucracy struggles with the massive task of trying to clean up improperly stored radioactive wastes from 40 years of bombmaking, no solution is in sight for a demonstrably safe permanent disposal system that will last for the required millenniums. At just two facilities, Hanford and Savannah River, nearly 100 million gal. of highly radioactive wastes have been generated. At Hanford alone, some 200 billion gal. of the more benign low-level wastes have been dumped into ponds, pits and basins -- enough to create a lake 40 ft. deep and large enough to cover Manhattan.

    In the catalog of previously concealed horrors, one of the worst records was compiled by the Hanford facility. Documents secured in the past three years by a Spokane environmental group under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that between 1944 and 1956, a startling 530,000 curies, a measure of emitted radioactivity, of iodine were released into the air by the facility -- an amount greater than any ever recorded at a U.S. nuclear plant. In 1953 and 1954 a large quantity of radioactive material was emitted, depositing particles near the ranching town of Mesa, about 15 miles from Hanford's boundary.

    The revelations left local residents badly shaken. Some refer to one stretch near Hanford as "death mile," where they claim to have counted an unusually high number of cancer deaths. Others point to their "downwinder" neck scars as evidence of thyroid operations that they blame on radioactive-iodine releases from the weapons plant. Robert Perkes, a farmer near Mesa, his wife and three of his daughters all take medication for underactive thyroid glands. "They didn't tell us the things that were going on," Perkes complains. "They were letting it fall all over us. They used us as guinea pigs."

    Tom Bailie, who was born near Hanford in 1947 and is running for the Washington State legislature, feels the same bitterness. Bailie's father had surgery for colon cancer at 39, his mother had skin cancer, his two sisters have had their lower colons removed. "I have a big hole in my chest, and I'm sterile, and I have only 90% of my lung capacity," he says. Bailie lays his family's misfortunes, rightly or wrongly, on Hanford's doorstep. "Their business is to make bombs," he says. "Mine is to farm. I don't care what they do there as long as they keep it there."

    The federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta plan to study how individuals living near Hanford have been affected physically. In a preliminary estimate, CDC researchers suggested that 20,000 children in eastern Washington may have been exposed to unhealthy levels of radioactive iodine by drinking milk from cows grazing in contaminated grasslands. Other scientists are already attempting to determine the actual doses of radiation received by residents, a study that may take five years and cost up to $10 million. Concedes Hanford manager Michael Lawrence: "There is no question that releases from the plants in the '40s and '50s were far higher than would be allowed today."

    At Ohio's Feed Materials Production Center in Fernald, a uranium-processing plant, the innocent-sounding name and the red-and-white checkerboard design on a water tower led some nearby residents to think it produced cattle feed or pet food. They have learned, to their dismay, that not only was the facility fabricating uranium rods for nuclear-reactor fuel cores and components for warheads, but one of its even scarier outputs was radioactive pollution. Marvin Clawson, 59, who lives near the plant, blames its operators for the fact that his wife Doris has had surgery for cancer three times and her mother, Amy Butterfield, 86, six times. Declares Clawson: "We've been deceived and lied to." Adds Mrs. Clawson: "We ask for the truth -- and we know damned well we're not going to get it."

    The strange happenings at Fernald illustrate the baffling ways officials, private or public, involved in the mismanagement seem able to escape legal and financial liability for their actions. Records released last month show that when the operation began in 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission told the contractor, National Lead of Ohio, to dump radioactive refuse into pits dug in the ground, then standard practice. When rainwater caused the pits to overflow, the AEC stonewalled the contractor's suggestions for fixing the problem. In 1958 National Lead warned that liquid was leaking through concrete storage tanks that had cracked. The commission's expedient solution: don't get new tanks, just keep the liquid below the cracks. The flawed tanks are still in use.

    Richard Shank, director of Ohio's environmental protection agency, estimates that the Fernald operation has released 298,000 lbs. of uranium wastes into the air since the plant started. Beyond that, he cites the deliberate discharge of 167,000 lbs. of wastes into the Great Miami River over 37 years. An additional 12.7 million lbs. were placed in pits, all of which may be leaking. Senator Glenn is still awaiting an analysis he requested three years ago from the Energy Department on whether such estimates are correct.

    The department has admitted that the Government was aware of these hazardous events at Fernald all along. A class-action lawsuit was filed against National Lead in 1985 by some 14,000 Fernald area residents. All too aware that radiation exposure is difficult to link conclusively with specific health problems, the residents are seeking $300 million in damages from lowered property values and the emotional trauma created by living near the plant. Their problem now is that the Federal Government is largely immune from such lawsuits. A recent Supreme Court decision ruled that a contractor meeting specifications set by the Government is cloaked with immunity from legal ! action. No one, it appears, is liable -- or accountable.

    That has enraged Ohio Governor Richard Celeste, who has demanded that the plant be permanently closed. "If a terrorist had buried it there, there would be an extraordinary and prompt reaction. In this case, it was our Government that buried the time bomb," he declared last week. "They have lied to us. Without a mechanism to oversee what they're doing, we can't trust them." Charges Ohio EPA chief Shank: "The U.S. Government is the single biggest polluter in Ohio and probably the nation."

    At the Savannah River layout, where discharges of reactor coolant emerge hot enough to boil a frog, a DOE official admits, "It's not too good for the fish around here either." The agency also concedes that a network of shallow aquifers under the vast acreage is contaminated with radioactive compounds. A deeper aquifer contains toxic, nonradioactive materials. The only argument: whether this supply is the source of drinking water for the surrounding area.

    It is at Savannah River that some of the weapons industry's most disturbing blunders have been exposed. Congressional investigators have turned up internal memos from the facility's manager, E.I. du Pont de Nemours, citing numerous incidents over three decades. On May 10, 1965, operators ignored a loud alarm for 15 minutes. Then they saw water spilling across the reactor- room floor. Fully 2,100 gal. of fluid had leaked out of the reactor, leaving the level of coolant too low. The reactor shut itself down automatically.

    Only two fuel meltdowns are known to have occurred in U.S. reactors before the crisis at Three Mile Island. Those were in the pioneering days of nuclear weaponry. Besides the partial melting of a fuel rod in 1970, a more recent near calamity took place in March 1982, when a technician at one of the Savannah River reactors left a water valve open, and for twelve hours the undetected flow flooded a large plutonium-processing room. The contaminated water was 2 ft. deep.

    William Lawless, a former engineer at Savannah River, contends that plant managers paid little attention to workers who spotted what they considered unsafe practices. He says he was overruled when he tried to warn officials in 1982 about storing highly radioactive liquid waste in holding tanks whose floors had corrosive pits. "It's just like the shuttle disaster," he says. "Engineers weren't allowed to stop something they should have. Management controls them."

    + The disclosures have ignited a public spat between the Energy Department and Du Pont chairman Richard Heckert. He charges that DOE has inflated the Savannah River troubles so that Westinghouse Electric, which is scheduled to take over the plant's operation from Du Pont on April 1, will look better. Heckert also contends that DOE is promoting the furor to gain public support and congressional funding for a new tritium-producing reactor at the huge installation. It would cost at least $6 billion and take more than six years to build. "Despite all the hullabaloo," Heckert says of his company's operation of the plant, "nobody was ever injured or killed."

    The gloom at Rocky Flats began on Oct. 8 when the Energy Department ordered work stopped in Building 771, where operations vital to the functioning of the entire facility were conducted, severely curtailing activity for the foreseeable future. The shutdown came after three people walked into a room that contained contaminated equipment. The warning sign that should have alerted them was covered by an electrical panel. Although the workers were not seriously exposed, the sloppy attitude toward safety has a long history at the plant. In its early days of operation, it was prone to fires, culminating in a blaze in May 1969 that caused $21 million in damage. The installation also faces a huge cleanup bill for its careless handling of wastes in the past. The price is placed at $755 million by DOE; critics contend it will be twice that amount.

    Inevitably, many hardy souls who work in the nuclear plants or whose communities rely heavily on the income they bring scoff at what they consider the alarmist fears being raised. Charges John Poynor, mayor of Richland, the closest town to the vast Hanford spread: "The types of people who are critical of Hanford and other nuclear reactors don't like anything except whales. I'd ship them all off to Alaska and let them rescue those three whales that are stuck."

    Among those who are not especially concerned about the safety of the weapons-production network are residents of Oak Ridge, Tenn., where enriched uranium has been produced since the very beginnings of the atomic age. Radiation is such a humdrum part of their daily lives that they take the red- and-white warning signs posted along Poplar Creek in stride. When area hunters bag a deer, they routinely run parts of it past a wildlife agent for radiation tests before serving it for dinner. The sight of coverall-clad workers ( chopping down "hot" trees growing in contaminated soil causes little concern.

    But for many, the invisible nature of radiation does stir emotions and feed paranoiac imaginations. Yet by operating for so long behind veils of secrecy, the weaponsmakers have left a void of perception that is all too easy to fill with worries that may or may not be exaggerated. In certain ill-defined and perhaps unknown quantities, radiation in the air, soil and water can, of course, be deadly. Some of its forms may persist for many centuries. As federal officials and fiercely independent private contractors finally step out of the nuclear closet and seek vast sums to clean up the mess they have created, repair aging facilities or build new ones, they face an unfamiliar challenge. Only candor and a new determination to give public safety priority over arms production can win the support they need.

    Charles Zinser's concerns about the safety of the Fernald plant are understandable, even wrenchingly so, considering the cancers that his two boys have suffered. Yet he does not ask much of the weaponsmakers. "I would like to see, just like it was an individual, that they'd just admit they screwed up, that they were willing to right their wrongs," Zinser says of the bombmakers. "There is a lot of damage they can't undo. But if they deny responsibility, and you have a Government that is not accountable to its citizens, then you do not have a republic."