The Risks at Oak Ridge

The Risks at Oak Ridge

By Joanne Thompson

Vol. 8, No. 2, 1986, pp. 15-16

Ever since World War II, under the protective umbrella of national security, nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, have operated with minimal outside scrutiny. Companies under contract with the federal government have been able to get legislative and agency waivers to continue operations, while at the same time refusing to disclose their methods of handling and disposing of radioactive and toxic materials. Only in the recent past have citizens been made aware of the true extent of the problem. In 1983, local media exposed the fact that the Y-12 weapons facility illegally released over 2.4 million pounds of mercury into the environment during the many years the facility had been in existence. Mercury poisoning causes nerve and brain damage, and birth disorders.

The transformation of Oak Ridge from a backwoods community to the center of weapons research and production of weapons was never questioned at the time. In the 40’s, the country was at war. Security was tight and who could argue with 80,000 federal jobs being brought to east Tennessee. Oak Ridge and surrounding communities became dependent on the federal government to sustain the local economic base. With Oak Ridge jobs now down to 10,000, former workers developing cancer, and landfills contaminating groundwater supplies, the price of national defense is only now being realized.

The recognition of the federal government’s failure to be accountable to its citizens comes at a time when the Department of Energy is proposing to make Oak Ridge the site for the first facility to re-package and store high level radioactive waste. DOE proposed the development of this facility at the same time it announced the shut-down of the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant, effectively laying off over 2,000 workers. The promise of jobs to help the local economy has always been the “big carrot” in reducing local opposition.


Tennesseans have grown increasingly skeptical that DOE can indeed construct and operate such a facility safely in light of its own track record on worker health and environmental damage. While DOE officials claim that there are minimal worker risks at their facilities, there is increasing evidence to the contrary. A paper. by Bob Alvarez of the Environmental Policy Institute documents serious occupational health problems at Oak Ridge facilities:

* Leukemia mortality at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory–workers in maintenance jobs who worked less than ten years show a 91 percent increased risk of leukemia. Those who worked longer showed a risk 212 percent greater.

* Cancer mortality at the Oak Ridge Y-12 weapons plant–research found that the risk of brain tumorsfor workers employed five to ten years was 489 percent greater than expected. Leukemia and aleukemia risks were 900 percent greater than expected.

An October 11, 1984 issue of the New Scientist indicated additional problems:

* Overall, workers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have a 49 percent excess leukemia mortality compared to the general public;

* Janitors, laborers, maintenance men and construction workers at the Laboratory have a significant excess risk of radiation-associated cancers;

* Between 1943 and 1947, workers at Oak Ridge’s Y-12 uranium processing plant had “significant excesses of deaths from lung cancer when compared to US white male rates”;

* Workers at Oak Ridge’s Y-12 plant had “excess death from cancer of the lung, brain, and central nervous system, Hodgkin’s disease and other lymphatic tissue,” and

* Workers at Oak Ridge’s Gaseous Diffusion Plant exhibit “excess deaths due to lung and brain cancers and respiratory disease.”

In addition, a study of 19,000 women working between 1943 and 1947 at the Y-12 plant was never finished–officals claimed that it was difficult to follow up on research subjects who did not have Social Security numbers and changed their names upon getting married. In late 1985, DOE officials announced that nine years of health data of workers had been destroyed or lost.

During the mercury investigation, it was discovered that workers at the Y-12 plant curing the 1950’s breathed doses of mercury vapor as high as thirty times the prevailing health standards.

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The track record for environmental damage is as scandalous. In addition to the 2.4 million pounds of mercury illegally released into the environment, we have the following:

* Over twelve million cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste was buried at the Oak Ridge Reservation since World War II–enough to fill the 95,000-seat University of Tennessee football stadium;

* TVA has identified more than 140 dangerous chemicals and radioactive materials present in Oak Ridge creek bottoms, including lead, cadmium, methylene chloride, thorium, and perchloryethlene;

* Over the years DOE engaged in poor disposal practices, including dumping wastes into poorly sited and constructed trenches and ponds which have resulted in serious underground water contamination;

* In 1985, DOE admitted to having dumped over fifty million pounds of uranium chips into Dempster Dumpsters, then buried them in shallow trenches;

* In an eight-year period, DOE has had 740 NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) violations at its three Oak Ridge facilities; and

* Recent spills of strontium-90 resulted in shutting the water intake system for the City of Kingston. City officials were notified one day after DOE had notified workers at the Gaseous Diffusion Plant not to use the water.

Notwithstanding other unknown dangers, DOE has estimated that the cost for clean-up of their facilities will run to over $800 million. As recently enacted laws, such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and Superfund Law (CERCLA), and recently promulgated standards, such as National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants, are applied by the federal and state EPA’s, more information will become known about DOE past disposal and operating practices.

The Tennessee Valley Energy Coalition (TVEC) is one Tennessee citizen organization leading the fight to keep the proposed temporary nuclear waste facility out of Tennessee and to make DOE correct past sins before proceeding with any new projects. TVEC has recently organized Americans for a Clean Environment, a local group which is monitoring past and future DOE activities at Oak Ridge. The organizations recently delivered petitions to the state capitol representing the opposition of over 100,000 Tennesseans to the MRS facility. The Sierra Club Radioactive Waste Campaign is working with TVEC, the Highlander Center, Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, and other Tennessee groups to halt the spread of groundwater contamination from Oak Ridge facilities.

Joanne Thompson, Ph.D., is executive director of the Tennessee Valley Energy Coalition and an adjunct faculty member with the University of Tennessee School of Social Work. TVEC’s address is 1407 East 5thAuenz e, Knoxville, TN 37917. Call 615-637-6055. This article, and the one following [Debra Castaldo. “Oak Ridge Wastes Varied, Extensive”] are reprinted from The Sierra Club Waste Paper, published quarterly by the Sierra Club Radioactive Waste Campaign, 625 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.