ENVIRONMENT

Nuclear negligence

Deadly radioactive leaks are widespread

WILLIAM LOWTHER November 7 1988
ENVIRONMENT

Nuclear negligence

Deadly radioactive leaks are widespread

WILLIAM LOWTHER November 7 1988

Nuclear negligence

ENVIRONMENT

Deadly radioactive leaks are widespread

The reinforced railway boxcar, filled with face masks, overalls, boots, gloves, engineering tools and other equipment, stood for four days last week on a siding in southeastern Idaho. With operations suspended at four plants that produce radioactive material for the United States’ armory of nuclear weapons, the boxcar was a symbol of the controversy raging over the plants—and the safety infractions that critics say have exposed thousands of Americans to dangerous levels of radioactivity. The boxcar’s contents—tainted by radioactivity— came from a privately operated nuclear weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colo., and were bound for storage at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in Idaho Falls. But Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus refused to accept the controversial cargo. “Garbage piles of death are building up all over this country,” declared Andrus. “We are courting a massive national disaster.”

Eventually, Colorado’s Gov. Roy Romer agreed to allow the boxcar to enter the state, even though Colorado has no safe place to store the material. The spectacle of a radioactive cargo with no place to go arose amid a series of revelations in recent weeks about the U.S. nuclear weapons industry. Over the past year, government officials have been releasing documents acknowledging that, for the past 46 years, plants manufacturing fissionable material for nuclear bombs, missile warheads and military research reactors have operated with little regard for human safety. As a result, four of the 15 U.S. plants that manufacture material for nuclear weapons—at Rocky Flats; Fernald, Ohio; Hanford, Wash.; and Savannah River, S.C.— have been closed down or have had their operations sharply reduced.

As well, congressional hearings during the past month have revealed that U.S. government officials over the years used the blanket excuse of “national security considerations” to cover up ruthless cost-cutting and widespread infringement of safety regulations. At the same time, government spokesmen said that, with the production of usable nuclear weapons almost stopped in the United States—because the material in nuclear warheads is decaying faster than it can be replaced—America may be faced, by 1990, with unintended unilateral disarmament.

Nowhere is the concern and anger triggered by the revelations more evident than in Femald, 35 km northwest of Cincinnati, where, for the past 35 years, a plant— innocuously designated as the Feed Materials Production Centre—has recovered uranium from contaminated objects and shipped it to weapons-making facilities. Workers at the plant, who went on strike on Oct. 7 to support demands for safer working conditions and higher pay, tell of families in the area who have been stricken by unusual forms of cancer, of employees becoming mysteriously sick and of higher-thanaverage rates of illness among workers. Still, scientists say that there is no clear link between increased cancer rates in the area and the emissions from the plant. As a result, lawyers acting for the area’s 14,000 residents have launched a suit against National Lead of Ohio Inc. (NLO)—the Cincinnati-based firm that operated the plant for 33 years—demanding $350 million in damages for the decline in property values and for emotional trauma caused by the exposure to radioactive materials.

The legal action led to further revelations of threats to the safety of workers and townspeople in Femald. In an effort to shift blame away from NLO, government officials in June released records dating back to 1958 showing that NLO warned the federal department of energy against a plan to construct leak-prone underground burial pits for radioactive waste and pressed for better waste-treatment facilities. But government officials instructed the company to work around those problems. Said Thomas Carpenter, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, which has represented Femald workers: “We were aware of some of these problems but attributed them to negligence. The department of energy is now telling us it was wilful conduct. That’s criminal behavior.” Other evidence was made public during the Femald dispute. According to an official statement by energy department lawyers submitted to federal district court in Cincinnati, government officials “knew full well that the normal operation of the Femald plant would result in emissions of uranium and other substances” into the nearby Great Miami River and into the air. Richard Shank, director of Ohio’s environmental protection agency, testified that since the Femald plant first began operating in 1951, at least 12.7 million lb. of uranium waste were buried in unsafe pits, 167,000 lb. were discharged into the river, and 298,000 lb. of radioactive material were released into the air in part when bags that were part of the air filtration system in the plant burst. Said congressman Thomas A. Luken, a Cincinnati-area Democrat who is chairman of the House energy and commerce subcommittee, which has been holding hearings on the matter since last month: ‘ ‘The department of energy now admits that, for most of the last 35 years, it sat on its hands and did nothing to fix these serious and potentially life-threatening problems.”

Femald is part of a pattern. The hearings revealed that, between 1957 and 1985, there were 30 serious reactor accidents at the Savannah River Plant near Aiken, S.C. Officials of E. I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., which operates the Savannah River Plant, testified that they informed Washington when accidents occurred. But documents indicated that energy department officials decided to keep the accidents secret to prevent a public outcry from interfering with weapons production. Declared Senator John Glenn, the Ohio Democrat and former astronaut: “Since its founding days, the plant has operated mainly in secret. It is evident now that concerns over safety, the environment and health did not matter at all. All they wanted was production.”

Indeed, documents tabled before the House committee also showed that the department of energy routinely awarded millions of dollars in bonuses to the companies that manage the plants, including Femald, as an incentive to keeping production levels high. In November, 1984, NLO received a bonus of more than $1.6 million despite a report by government investigators five months earlier that workers there were routinely exposed to hazardous levels of radiation and that radioactive uranium was contaminating air and water around the plant. Government officials evaluated U.S. nuclear plants twice a year. But only 10 per cent of the total score was for factors such as safety and health.

Concern over safety at a nuclear weapons plant in Washington state has spread as far as British Columbia. Eight of the nine nuclear reactors at the 45-year-old Hanford plutoniumprocessing plant, 250 km south of the U.S.Canadian border, had been shut down by 1972, and the ninth closed in January, 1987. But some B.C. residents say that they are worried about the radioactive waste stored at Hanford.

According to Karen Wheeless, director of communications at Hanford, about 16 million cubic feet of highly radioactive waste—as well as reactor compartments from four decommissioned nuclear submarines and other nuclear wastes—are stored in storage tanks and drums at Hanford. And Vancouver environmentalist Frederick Knelman, author of the 1987 book America, God and the Bomb, declared, “Even an accident in a waste container could be threatening.” He added, “And if the weather and winds are right, it could have a major impact on British Columbia.”

Meanwhile, energy department officials are conducting a comprehensive investigation of conditions at Savannah River, the nation’s largest nuclear plant, and they plan to have the plant fully operative by next summer. But some experts say that it could take much longer to thoroughly check and improve safety systems at the plant, where, in March, 1982, in one of 30 separate accidents, water flooded a plutonium-processing room to a level of two feet.

The reactors at Savannah River produce tritium, a radioactive gas needed to keep most of the nation’s warheads at operational readiness. Tritium decays at a rate of 5.5 per cent a year, and at a certain point—exactly when is classified information—will decay to the point that weapons become inoperative. Energy department officials said that unless the reactors at Savannah River are restarted by next summer, the United States could be forced to start deactivating older warheads to recover tritium for use in higher-priority weapons—including the controversial MX missile system.

The situation at Colorado’s Rocky Flats plant, just 10 km south of the city of Boulder, is even more serious. At Rocky Flats, plutonium is shaped into triggers for nuclear weapons. After a serious fire swept through the plant in 1969, a study by'the department of energy found concentrations of radioactive plutonium in the area at 400 to 1,500 times the normal levels—the highest ever measured near an urban area, including the Japanese city of Nagasaki, where the United States exploded an atomic bomb in 1945 to hasten the end of the Second World War. Early last month, the energy department closed Rocky Flats’ main plutoniumprocessing building after two employees of Rockwell International Corp.—the firm that operates the plant—and a government inspector walked into a room where radioactive material was stored and were contaminated by plutonium. A subsequent investigation found that a warning sign outside the room had been covered by an electrical panel.

Washington now faces the prospect of a costly program to get its nuclear weapons plant safely back into production. According to energy department estimates, the cost of making the system safe enough to operate for another 15 or 20 years could be as high as $16 billion. But those estimates do not include cleaning up the radioactive waste that has accumulated at about 80 plant and storage sites in 27 states and in Puerto Rico. In the meantime, the conflict over national security and public safety is certain to intensify in the wake of recent revelations. And Americans will likely be asking for years why a system designed to protect the nation was allowed to become a major national health threat.

WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington with DEBORRA SCHUG in Vancouver

WILLIAM LOWTHER

DEBORRA SCHUG