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USA: dark secrets of nuclear weapons work in 1940/50s

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(October 6, 2000) In a three-day exposé, the American newspaper USA Today published in the beginning of September 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.

(535.5208) Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety - 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 U.S. 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."

The 'need' for private contractors
After World War II, the top-secret program to develop nuclear weapons, the Manhattan Project, continued. The Atomic Energy Commission, predecessor of the present DOE, which was set up in 1946, recognized that the government lacked enough manufacturing facilities and expertise. As a result, contracts were renewed with a small group of companies that had been hired for the Manhattan Project. But with the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb, the AEC moved to a far more aggressive weapons production schedule and the number of private companies hired multiplied. Health and safety concerns were less important than building a lot of nuclear weapons in a short time. The AEC began moving away from using private contractors in the early 1950s, building up a network of government-owned facilities. Some subcontractors were still used for certain work, but most work at private sites ended by 1960.
USA TODAY, 5 September 2000

"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 U.S. 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.

Source and contact: Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), 107 Cienega, Santa Fe, NM 87501, US Tel: +1-505-986 1973; Fax: +1-505-986 0997