FOR FIVE months, staff writer Joby Warrick has been laying out the ghastly story of the workers at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in western Kentucky, a government facility that, beginning in the 1950s, helped to produce the highly toxic materials used to create the nuclear arsenal that sustained this country through the Cold War.
It is a horrifying tale, in that these workers whom the politicians now hasten to acclaim as Cold War heroes were — like their counterparts at other such plants — systematically misled about the dangers of the work they were being paid to do, and that in some cases seems to have killed them. The plant, at least by today’s standards, seems to have been almost casually designed and operated. The workers were not issued proper protective gear. The air was full of radioactive dust. They breathed it. It settled on their food at lunchtime. They took it home; some recount that they would find traces of it on their bed linen when they awoke in the morning.
Few records were kept of the workers’ health, and no systematic studies have been done. But there is fragmentary evidence of a high incidence of some cancers and other diseases. The bones of one dead worker were disinterred. He had had a series of horrible ailments, including cancer, and had become what would now be called a whistle-blower. Superiors had induced him to retire in part with a promise of benefits then denied. At one point they went so far as to ascribe his ailments in part to eating too much country ham. His wife had the bones disinterred to vindicate him. “His body contained uranium at levels up to 133 times higher than is normally found in bones,” Mr. Warrick reported.
Radioactive waste from the plant can be found in the surrounding community as well. “The situation is as close to a complete lack of health physics as I have observed outside of the former Soviet Union,” a senior official in an environmental group has said.
How did it happen? The old Atomic Energy Commission, which ran the plant at the outset, was supposed to be a regulator of nuclear undertakings but too often acted as their cheerleader instead. The jobs and income the plant provided were coveted in an area that didn’t have enough of either. The workers felt, with cause, that they were performing a patriotic duty, and that it would be unmanly to complain. The contractors that were operating the plant for the government sought to prevent what one memo called an “outcry” over radiation, to say nothing of a possible union demand for higher pay as compensation for the hazardous conditions. The recent contractors say the harm was done before they took over; the prior one says the truth is impossible to reconstruct.
It’s not clear to what extent senior officials at the Energy Department were aware of the problems at the plant before Mr. Warrick’s work began to appear. They now profess a welcome sense of urgency, as do the committees of Congress with jurisdiction they previously neglected to exercise. Perhaps it goes without saying that insofar as possible the workers and their families should be made whole and the environment cleaned up. But the duty of the politicians goes beyond that. This is a story of people who were harmed by a government that they trusted and that lied to them. That’s the ultimate problem. Who trusts the government next, and who among the current politicians can restore such trust?