PADUCAH, Ky. - A half-century ago, western Kentucky was so thrilled
about the opening of a Cold War uranium enrichment
plant that it gave communities names like "Cimota" -
Atomic spelled backward.
Decades later, workers file into Paducah's "Sick
Workers Office," pulling oxygen tanks and fighting
incurable tumors - angry, scared, dying.
As they marked the 50th anniversary this week of the
opening of Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, residents
pondered a mixed legacy: The facility turned the town
into a pocket of wealth in a poor region, but at what
Workers were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation,
and scores slowly became sick with diseases that the
government only recently admitted responsibility for.
"People come in here very sick. They feel like they've
lost their dignity," said Stewart Tolar, site manager
at the Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center.
In 1999, then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson issued
an apology in Paducah after the government reversed
decades of denial and conceded that many workers did
get sick because of on-the-job exposure.
An entitlement law later provided lifetime medical
care and a tax-free lump sum of $150,000 to sick
workers exposed to cancer-causing radiation and silica
or beryllium, which can cause lung diseases.
Since the program began last year, about $62.8 million
has been distributed to former and current workers and
their survivors through the resource office in
Paducah, Tolar said.
But recognition came too late for many. Former plant
worker Joe Harding, for example, was denied
compensation even though his bones contained 34,000
times the expected concentration of uranium before he
died in 1980.
In addition to the health disaster, the Energy
Department estimated it would take 10 years and $1.3
billion more than the $400 million already spent to
clean up environmental contamination.
Even so, many former workers say seeing the town get
rich while doing what many considered their patriotic
duty during the Cold War - making weapons-grade
uranium for warheads - made everything worthwhile.
"It's been a good salary and it's got good benefits,"
said Rodney Cook 53, a shift superintendent who had
part of a lung removed in March because of exposure to
asbestos he believed he received during the 27 years
he has worked at the plant. "I don't blame anybody for
it. It was just part of the job."
James Dew, 77, who retired as a top executive in 1998
after 38 years, said he would not do it again. Dew
developed a pituitary tumor, and blames it and other
health problems on radiation exposure. He sued, but
the case was thrown out. He has not yet filed for the
"They should have told people what was in the material
we were processing and the hazards involved," said
Dew, of Gallatin, Tenn. Still, he has fond memories:
"The people who worked there were a great bunch of
With the increase in demand for engineers and
scientist at the plant, the middle and upper classes
expanded in what had primarily been a river and
To this day, the Paducah facility is western
Kentucky's biggest private employer with more than
1,700 workers, and one of the largest employers in the
After U.S. Enrichment Corp. last year suspended
operations at a sister uranium facility in Piketon,
Ohio, Paducah became the only place in the nation
where uranium is enriched for the commercial nuclear
Opening the plant "was a major event in the history of
the city," said Don Pepper, 78, who moved here in 1951
to work as a reporter. "It set the character of this
city for a long time."
The Energy Department initially thought 3,000 to 4,000
people nationwide might be eligible for compensation
for nuclear-weapons related work during the Cold War,
but the accuracy of that estimate is unclear, in part
because of poor record keeping.
Despite all that, Paducah, population 27,000, is now a
rival with Piketon to attract a new uranium enrichment
plant using safer and more efficient centrifuge
"This community and this region has been supportive of
the plant over the last 50 years," said former plant
employee Susan Zimmerman Guess. "The next technology
should be located here in Paducah."