• U.S.

Living Happily Near A Nuclear Trash Heap

7 minute read
Dick Thompson/Oak Ridge

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. Last August he called Martin Marietta Corp., which took over management of the government’s nuclear complex from Union Carbide in 1984. The doctor wanted to report his concerns and ask what chemicals he should test for in his patients. If Reid thought that Martin Marietta and his employers at Methodist Medical Center would appreciate his initiative, he was wrong. Three weeks later, the hospital began a disciplinary process aimed at forcing him off the staff. The doctor suspects that the hospital and Martin Marietta were trying to thwart his investigation. Says Reid: “They are worried they’re going to have a Bhopal on their hands.” The hospital denies there is any connection between the disciplinary action and Reid’s allegations about health problems.

When Reid’s dispute with the hospital hit the Oak Ridge newspapers this year, the public response was strangely muted. Residents long ago learned to live with radioactivity and risk. This, after all, is one of the birthplaces of the Bomb, a town whose very existence was a by-product of nuclear reactions. The federal complex is still the largest employer of the population of 30,000. Even the mayor is a physicist, and newspapers report levels of background radiation each week. But decades of studies have failed to find any gross health problems. Says Oak Ridge physicist Chester Richmond: “People here just don’t accept the arguments that this material is going to give you cancer.”

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.

Given this legacy, one might expect Oak Ridgers to be dying prematurely in droves. But nothing like that has occurred. Between 1988 and ’90, cancer deaths in the county that contains Oak Ridge were 142 per 100,000 people — less than the 145 per 100,000 recorded for the entire state. Research shows that Oak Ridge employees are 20% less likely to die of cancer than Americans as a whole, perhaps because the nuclear workers all have health insurance and good medical care.

Local environmental activists, who tend to live outside the city of Oak Ridge, suspect the results of reassuring studies have been skewed. They focus on workers and not on other members of the community. The studies look largely, though not exclusively, at cancer deaths, rather than cases of cancer that haven’t yet proved lethal. And the best indication of radiation hazards might not be cancer but some other disability, such as neurological damage, immune dysfunction or birth defects. The worst flaw seems to be that no study has been carried out on women.

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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