USA Today Uncovers Dark Secrets of the Nuclear Weapons Work Done at Private Facilities Across the U.S. During the 1940s and 50s

Another nuclear waste dump is proposed for New Mexico near WIPP

*In a three-day exposť, USA Today published a 10 month investigative report researched and written by journalist, Peter Eisler, which laid out the dark secret of the U.S. government secretly contracting with private facilities across the nation to build America's early nuclear arsenal during the 1940's and 50's. The exclusive report uncovers big-name chemical firms, private manufacturing facilities, and mom-and-pop machine shops that were hired by what is now called the Department of Energy (or DOE) to work on different aspects of nuclear weapons production. Some 300 companies undertook the dangerous business of handling tons of uranium, thorium, polonium, and other radioactive and toxic substances, including beryllium. Neither the companies nor the government ever told the thousands of workers that they were exposed to hazardous levels of radiation, frequently hundreds of times higher than the limits considered acceptable in those days. At least one-third of those companies did not protect workers with proper equipment or tell them of the hazards of the materials they were working with.

Not only were the workers exposed to health hazards, but many people in the communities surrounding these facilities were also exposed as the companies dumped toxic waste generated from the weapons work into the air, soil and water. Many of the contamination risks remain covered-up even today. Recently, many documents that were previously classified by the federal government, became declassified because of the passage of time, so were available to the investigative journalists. The investigation into nuclear workers lack of protection now became painfully evident. ''These places just fell off the map,'' says Dan Guttman, former director of the President's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, set up in 1994 to investigate revelations that government-funded scientists exposed unknowing subjects to dangerous isotopes in secret Cold War studies. ''People were put at considerable risk. It appears (the government) knew full well that (safety) standards were being violated, but there's been no effort to maintain contact with these people (and) look at the effects."

“There's no legitimate reason for this neglect,'' says Guttman, a lawyer and weapons program watchdog who returned to private practice after the committee finished its work in 1995.

The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA), a national organization made up of local groups including CCNS that focus on DOE issues, released the following statement in response to the USA Today article: “Today's revelation that more than 100 'forgotten' nuclear weapons production facilities exposed workers and contaminated the environment demonstrates 'the nation's ongoing failure to develop a coherent plan to address the Cold War's radioactive legacy.”

ANA urged the Clinton Administration and Congress to respond to the USA Today articles without delay. "The message for the U.S. government is really simple," explained ANA Director Susan Gordon. "Tell the truth; redress the harm." ANA called for adoption of "a systematic plan" based on four principles:

  •  Full disclosure of all U.S. nuclear weapons production activities -- where they took place, when, who was exposed, and what contamination still exists;
  •  Immediate containment of residual radioactive and toxic materials followed by cleanup to protect against further damage;
  •  Release of all worker exposure records and government- funded health monitoring of former facility employees and neighbors; and
  •  Development of a package including compensation and other remedies to assist those who are sick or whose loved ones have died.

ANA leaders met with DOE Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health, David Michaels to discuss health-related issues. Activists around the nation, including CCNS, are petitioning DOE for hearings to discuss responses to recent reports of widespread worker and community contamination from nuclear weapons production. ANA will also be working with members of Congress to develop legislation to address these problems.

*A private company is proposing another nuclear waste dump in the vicinity of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (or WIPP) site. The proposed dump would be for highly radioactive commercial waste, which is composed mostly of plutonium, beryllium and americium. Much of the nuclear waste being considered for disposal in the new facility is currently stored throughout the nation as "sealed sources," which are stainless steel containers with nuclear materials inside. While DOE representative Robert Campbell claims "the basic proposal is reasonable," anti-nuclear activists view the proposal as opening the door for disposal of other types of radioactive waste.


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