Plutonium Politics: The Poisoning of South Carolina

Plutonium Politics: The Poisoning of South Carolina

By Andre Carothers

Vol. 10, No. 4, 1988, pp. 4-5, 8-11

It’s not hard to attract attention at the Savannah River Plant, particularly if you are roaring along its southwestern boundary in a 250-horsepower speedboat, as we were, with a man in the bow training a telephoto lens on the far bank. Particularly since the private army that guards this nondescript stretch of South Carolina river is negotiating a new five-year, $300 million contract. And especially since, after thirty years of working quietly behind a smokescreen of secrecy and deft public relations, the lid has been blown off the business here, the business that has taken up a Chicago-sized piece of South Carolina pine forest, poured millions of gallons of toxic and radioactive waste into the groundwater and veiled the southeastern United States in a radioactive mist-the business of making plutonium and tritium for nuclear bombs.

So we weren’t surprised by the uniformed guards that followed in a cowled speedboat. Or the sheriff’s deputies who politely interrupted our lunch on the Georgia side of the river. But the helicopter, well, that seemed like a bit much, at least at first. But that was before I began to understand the psychological state of South Carolina and its relationship with things nuclear, an uneasy alliance called “schizophrenic” by one local activist and “downright insane” by another.

Today, South Carolina’s once-invisible Savannah River Plant, like its sister plant in Washington state and the entire U.S. government nuclear weapons complex, is under siege. Three decades of undercover production of plutonium and tritium have left South Carolina with more high-level radioactive waste than any known place on earth. The breakneck pace of warhead production set by the Reagan Administration has forced the Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractors to run roughshod over local laws and sensibilities and push the aging reactors well past the limits of safety and common sense. The DuPont Company, having managed the site since day one, is getting ready to pack up and leave because the place is such a mess they don’t want to be liable for anything that might go wrong. And South Carolina, the state that in the seventies was called “the most pro-nuclear state in the country” is now wondering if perhaps it hasn’t been burned, forever.

Origins of the SRP

If there had been a cultural historian on the staff after World War II, the Truman administration might have had second thoughts about choosing South Carolina as the site for a multibillion dollar “bomb factory.” This is the ultimate Southern state, General Sherman’s “hell-hole of secession,” where in certain circles the Civil War is still known as The War of Northern Aggression. This is the state whose econ-

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omy for its first hundred years had more in common with a one-crop Caribbean slave island than the industrial north. When the U.S. government announced in 1950 that the town of Ellenton and a few neighboring communities, comprising 1,500 families, a few small businesses and 150 cemeteries, would be uprooted to accommodate a military facility, South Carolina characteristically presented both faces. The invasion was at once condemned as a Truman plan to “import alien and northern voters,” welcomed as an economic boon, and accepted with both pride and resignation as a patriotic duty.

And so the Savannah River Plant (SRP) joined Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation as one of two massive complexes supplying fuel for the nation’s nuclear arsenal. E.I. DuPont de Nemours Company was asked by the government to run it. For more than thirty years, DuPont has reigned here, Washington’s local emissary, managing state politics and opinion in a manner that mixed cloying summer camp paternalism with a Big Brother dictatorship.

The Savannah River Plant News, an employee newspaper published by DuPont, set the tone with reports on the softball scores of the teams carved from the facility’s 15,000 employees, the spotless safety record, the women’s knitting club and the latest promotions. DuPont tree specialists planted 40,000 seedlings a day, turning the condemned farmland into the state’s most productive tree farm. The happy family aura was pursued relentlessly and with great success.

Slowly the Memory Faded

Local businesses championed DuPont’s cause because the company pumped $350 million a year into the troubled rural economy. Politicians likewise rallied to the cause, in typical Southern fashion.

Legend has it that one state senator’s support for splitting the atom on the banks of the Savannah was guaranteed, “as long as he got his half.” The editor of the plant’s newspaper became editor of the nearby Aiken Standard, the town of New Ellenton was established, and slowly the memory of Ellenton’s death faded. The mammoth construction site, with its five reactor complexes, 230 miles of highway and 153 scattered dumps for toxic waste and radioactive debris blended chameleon-like into the porous, forgiving South Carolina soil.

Soft-spoken, almost fragile, with an air of kindness and gentility that is almost unnerving, Bill Lawless seems at first a most unlikely whistleblower. But in fact, just five years ago, he was one of the first to come out. That’s what they call it when someone breaks the code of silence and goes public with evidence of wrongdoing at the “Bomb Plant.” They come out–like a debutante, or a refugee.

Within a year of quitting his DOE post as project manager of the plant’s Burial Ground, where radioactive waste and toxic chemicals are buried or poured into pits, Lawless decided to testify at the trial of a handful of protesters who had been arrested for trespassing at the plant gates. Lawless’s testimony was the first revelation of the deceptive and unsafe practices that had remained secret since the 1950s. It would not be the last.

His most famous confession (“It always gets their attention,” he told me) is about the cardboard boxes. Radioactive wastes that are not so concentrated or dangerous that they must be stored in double-walled tanks were buried in cardboard boxes. Not special, reinforced, double-lined cardboard boxes, just plain old cardboard boxes.

Then he talked about the double set of books. DuPont and DOE, he said, have two sets of information from which they analyze the rate at which toxic and radioactive wastes travel through the sandy soil into the groundwater. One set of statistics is drawn from the “public” sampling wells, figures often manipulated by flushing the wells with water or pumping them out and then drawing a sample. The other is for internal use only. The internal figures are either unpublished or buried reports often labeled “draft” and thus protected from public requests under the Freedom of Information Act. And, most chilling of all, he talked about the waste contaminated with tritium and strontium-90 that was slowly leaking into groundwater.

This was the first deviation from the model-the way things ought to be, according to DuPont and DOE-versus the way things actually were. DuPont had models for how radioactive elements would move in groundwater, how radiation would disperse over surrounding communities, how safety records should look and how Dupont employees should act. Things that didn’t fit the model were not wrong, they just didn’t exist.

Growing Opposition to Polluters

Thus, for DOE and DuPont, Lawless’s testimony was more than just treason, it was insanity. “People suffer from a form of cognitive dissonance at SRP,” says Lawless, “They see things are wrong, but they are not supposed to be wrong, so they don’t see them. Radionuclide migration was something we weren’t supposed to see. Public records showed tritium levels two or three times the drinking water standard, but our own records showed levels a thousand times that. They said strontium-90 didn’t move, and they said plutonium didn’t move, but we found it happening. It just wasn’t supposed to happen.”

“The people that work at SRP are normal human beings, and they are great human beings, but there is a form of thought control here. If they tell you that things are sup-

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posed to look good, and they tell everyone else that things do look good, then you can’t expect people to go against management and say it is not so. It took someone very naive, like me, to write it up.”

At the same time Bill Lawless was undergoing a crisis of conscience about waste-handling inside the plant, citizens outside-from Columbia, Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah, and Charleston-were beginning to wonder about the wisdom of the region’s increasingly irrevocable relationship with the atom.

In the early seventies, Ruth Thomas founded Environmentalists, Incorporated, hoping to organize legal challenges to the state’s polluters. A few years later, Michael Lowe helped found the Palmetto Alliance, modeling it on New England’s grass roots, civil-disobedience-oriented Clamshell Alliance. These groups, in the words of Bob Alvarez, of the Washington-based Environmental Policy Institute, were the “midwives” of organized opposition to SRP.

Oblivious to the growing opposition, the Defense Department and its partners in the commercial nuclear industry persisted with the rapid nuclearization of the state. In the late seventies, Allied Gulf Nuclear Services neared completion of a commercial reprocessing plant, Barnwell Nuclear Fuel Plant, to recover plutonium and uranium from spent nuclear fuel. At the same time, Chem-Nuclear Services opened a low-level waste dump. Both were located in Barnwell County on the edge of the Savannah River Plant.

The final indignity came with the election of Ronald Reagan. Already, the aging nuclear weapons production plants were being pressed by outgoing President Jimmy Carter to increase production of tritium and plutonium, and Reagan pushed the schedule up still further. Reagan’s first “Stockpile Memorandum,” the Defense Department’s schedule for warhead construction (also known as “the shopping list”), set priorities for fifteen years instead of the usual eight, and proposed building 21,000 warheads inside of a decade.

The ‘Department of Bombs’

Meeting this demand would require restarting an old mothballed reactor at Hanford and one at Savannah River. It would shift DOE’s emphasis further into bomb-making, turning it, in the words of one weapons lab physicist, into “The Department of Bombs.” “Carter restarted the engine of the nuclear weapons complex,” says Alvarez, “and Reagan put the pedal to the metal.”

With the rekindling of DOE’s nuclear fires, South Carolina found itself facing a brand new nuclear future, just as a handful of investigators were digging into what was

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appearing to be a very frightening past. Inspired by the discovery in the University of South Carolina library of a document showing that DuPont had been keeping tabs on the waste stream and the radiation exposures of workers, Alvarez filed a Freedom of Information Act request and soon found himself the owner of three shelves of bound SRP data. “It was a great collection of information. We could analyze their operations based on their actual numbers-the releases, everything-not the reports that they had prepared from the numbers.”

Once again, reality began to conflict with DuPont models. Based on the reams of raw data supplied by DOE, Alvarez and his colleagues at the Environmental Policy Institute pumped out analyses showing, among other things, that people in the area were getting radiation doses fifty times what they should have been getting according to DuPont models. They discovered that the high-level wastes in the fifty-one underground tanks contained more plutonium (about fifty bombs’ worth) than safety and common sense would suggest. They showed that a cloud of radioactivity that DOE alleges had drifted over from a Nevada test in March of 1955 was more likely the result of a serious release from the reactor area.

They discovered a leukemia rate among workers twice what it should have been. They pointed out that if the U.S. Geological Survey was correct, and there was a decent, if slim, chance that the Charleston Earthquake of 1886 could repeat itself in Barnwell County, then a rupture of the high-level waste tanks was likely. In that event, more than a billion curies of long-lived radio-isotopes would be released in the southeastern United States, making the fifty million-curie Chernobyl accident look like spilled milk.

Whistleblowers’ Revelations

Alvarez’s revelations joined the criticisms of other courageous whistle-blowers. After years of trying to encourage reform on the inside, Arthur Dexter, a DuPont physicist, went public in 1985 with a report on a leak from a building called the canyon, where the reprocessing of spent fuel takes place. He became the leading critic of the reactors’ so-called “containment system.” Unlike commercial reactors, the military reactors have no concrete dome to keep in radioactive contamination in case of an accident. Instead, they rely on filters and carbon sponges, a system that Dexter considers far from adequate. “An explosion would destroy the air filters, and some water could render those charcoal beds worthless,” says Dexter, “And then you’d have radioactive iodine and other poisons pouring out of the building.”

Engineer Fred Christensen came forward to recount the story about the time the reactor almost blew up about the frantic control room engineer who barked out, “close the rotor valves” to stem a cooling water leak on the reactor floor. Had he not been countermanded by a senior manager, says Christensen, “the reactor would have gone off in a big whoof.” Christensen’s personal reactor safety plan, he confessed, involved using a pair of wire cutters he kept in his desk drawer to cut a beeline through SRP’s fences-upwind from the meltdown.

But it was Washington’s imperious push to open the L-reactor that finally broke the nuclear spell over South Carolina. “They basically said they were going to start up the reactor,” says Michael Lowe, “but they didn’t have to do an environmental impact statement. The idea that they could reopen a thirty-year-old nuclear reactor, dump contaminants into the ground, heat up Steel Creek with cooling water to 150 degrees and add to the already enormous pile of sizzling radioactive wastes and say that there is no significant environmental impact-it’s unbelievable.”

“What they were really saying is, ‘Look, don’t bother us with your rules and regulations. We’ve got bombs to build.’ And anyone who tried to stop them was ‘working against the national interest.’ well, people down here just don’t like to be pushed around that way.”

Frances Close Hart, a member of one of the state’s most prominent families, was one of those people. A Palmetto Alliance volunteer for a short time, she had just started her own group, the Energy Research Foundation, to pursue legal challenges to the bomb plant. Joining with the Natural Resources Defense Council, ERF sued the Department of Energy for refusing to do an environmental impact statement. Soon they were joined by several regional environmental groups such as Georgia’s Coastal Citizens For a Clean Environment and, halfway through the proceedings, by the state of South Carolina.

Two years later, they had won the lawsuit and significantly delayed the L-reactor start-up. But they had also changed the tenor of South Carolina’s plutonium politics. The damage to DOE and DuPont was far greater than the the two years in lost time and money. The state government had joined Frances Close Hart and a national environmental group in suing DuPont and the Department of Energy. Opposition to DuPont and the SRP had become acceptable, even respectable. “Here was one Southern state and a handful of Southern activists having a tangible effect on the arms race,” marveled Bob Alvarez. South Carolina, “the most pro-nuclear state in the country,” had grown up. Or, as one South Carolina activist with a sense of history put it, “We returned to our roots.”

After Chernobyl, it was no longer just a dozen other activists against the Savannah River Plant. Suddenly, everyone was peering into the Department of Energy’s military reactors to see whether the disaster upstream of Kiev could happen upstream of Savannah, or on the banks of the Columbia in Washington.

A Crescendo of Self-Examination

The flurry of self-examination reached a crescendo in 1987. The year opened with the revelation that the SRP reactors had been running at a power level beyond the capabilities of the cooling system, and the levels were reduced by a quarter. In January, a panel of experts convened by the Department of Energy recommended that Hanford’s N-reactor be closed for repairs; in an unusual dissenting opinion, two of the panel’s members, including the chairman, called for it to be closed down forever. A year later, it would be.

In March 1987, it was decided that the SRP reactors were still cranked up too high, and power was cut by half. Six months later, a memo from a House Subcommittee revealed that DuPont personnel had shut down sprinkler systems in the tritium facility because they were more worried about

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computers getting wet than the building burning down. And in October, the long-awaited National Academy of Sciences report on the Savannah River Plant came out. The National Academy of Sciences is the government’s reality check. It has been called in to look at the nuclear industry several times over the years, but never before has it turned in such a scathing report.

The 67-page critique called the oversight of DOE “ingrown and largely outside the scrutiny of the public.” All the reactors at Savannah River Plant are subject to corrosion, cracks and “other symptoms of acute aging.” Confirming Arthur Dexter’s criticisms, the report condemned the filter “containment system” as unlikely to withstand the hydrogen explosion associated with an accident. Some sort of rigorous oversight is required, concluded the National Academy of Sciences, to bring the Department of Energy and its contractors under control.

The Academy’s report was released the morning of Oct. 29,1987. Three hours later, DuPont announced that when its contract ran out at the end of 1989, it would leave.

On the first of March, a Tuesday morning, I drove through the Savannah River Plant on the state highway. At the entrance a guard checked the time, counted the number of people in the car and wrote the information on a card. I handed this card to another guard who looked me over when I came out, twenty miles down the road at the other side of the plant.

‘Security Means Jobs’

The scenery is pretty, mostly pine trees and the occasional soupy South Carolina marsh, broken by dozens of billboards that exhort the SRP employees: “Security Means Jobs,” “Security is Your Business,” and one curious admonition to “Play Safely.” Around lunchtime, over the radio, a broadcaster announced that a release of radioactive tritium had occurred at the plant at 6:18 that morning. It amounted to approximately 20,000 curies, the result of an equipment malfunction. At no time was there any danger to the public, the reporter quoted a DuPont manager as saying; the exposure at the plant boundary would be far less than an average chest X-ray.

It was difficult to feel reassured. I remembered Bill Lawless talking about how they pulled numbers out of the air. I wondered if the “exposure at the plant boundary” was calculated from one of the many computer-generated models DuPont had devised, based on the way they would like things to be. Obviously, tritium gas didn’t fan out in perfect concentric circles from the point of release. Didn’t the direction of the prevailing winds make a difference? The reassurance came so quickly from DuPont it had the mark of an oft-used and unthinking reflex, like arms raised to ward off a blow. [See news briefs; page 7.]

Arthur Dexter says these plants are too dangerous for humans to run. “You have to be perfect to do what they do there,” he said, “and nobody’s perfect. Eventually something will go wrong.” DuPont wanted to be perfect, so much so that it put an elaborate false front on the messy business of making bombs in South Carolina and painted a picture of a gleaming technological wonderland where nothing went wrong, where the only news allowed was good news. Such illusions, they found, become brittle with age.

Compared to the half-life of some of the nuclear particles in its soil, South Carolina’s infatuation with the atom was vanishingly brief. Like a giant sponge, the sandy soil will hold the millions of gallons of contaminated water from SRP indefinitely. To clean up the mess here, and the mess at Hanford, could cost $100 billion, or about a dollar for every three dollars spent on the nuclear arms race since 1943. The thirty-five million gallons of high-level waste are to be turned into glass and stored permanently, a dangerous and decades-long process. And many people are convinced that what we have learned about SRP’s dangerous legacy in the last eight years is only a small part of the story.

But the Defense Department is poised to begin again, evoking national security to support its demands for a new set of multi-billion plutonium and tritium production complexes. South Carolina is at the top of the list, but I doubt it will be so accommodating this time. Many people here are wondering whether the definition of national security shouldn’t include the preservation of the state’s environment and the health and safety of its citizens. “South Carolina responded to the call from Washington, and for a while, we forgot to take care of ourselves,” says Michael Lowe. “Now, I don’t know if we’ll ever think about our country’s security in the same way again. It’s taken on anew meaning down here. It’s a lot closer to home now.”

David Albright, a physicist with the Federation of American Scientists, has devoted years of poring over documents, radiation release reports and budget requests to answer two questions: how much plutonium and tritium do the United States and Soviet Union have, and how much do they need?

The questions are important ones, because although the U.S. plutonium and tritium production reactors are dangerously dilapidated, the Pentagon insists on running them. At

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the same time the military is also demanding up to $10 billion to construct a new production reactor.

The most annoying aspect of the problem is that the U.S. government refuses to outline its needs. In fact, it has lied. “In the past, the DOE has dramatically overprojected its needs for plutonium production for new warheads,” says Albright, “and the amount we have is barely a secret. Certainly the Soviets are familiar with it.”

When DOE Secretary John Herrington admitted last February that the U.S. is “awash with plutonium,” contradicting years of pleas for more production, he did not reinforce DOE’s reputation for honesty. “If we can’t believe the Department of Energy’s statements about plutonium,” says Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Jim Beard, “how can we believe it when they say we need a new production reactor?”

More Plutonium Production Not Needed

Albright and his colleagues have come up with a number of for the U.S. stockpile of plutonium-about 10,000 kilograms-and he thinks the Soviet Union has about the same. Since plutonium can be recycled from old weapons and essentially last forever, most analysts agree that more production is not needed.

Last November, a coalition* of experts and groups, including former CIA head William Colby, SALT I negotiator Gerard Smith, former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency head Paul Warnke, and MIT President Emeritus Jerome Wiesner, circulated the “Plutonium Challenge,” calling for a two-year ban on plutonium production. According to Frank von Hippel of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Yevgeny Velikhov, head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and top Gorbachev adviser, favors the idea.

Tritium represents another problem. Used since the mid- fifties to boost the explosive power of nuclear warheads, tritium decays-its half-life is about twelve years. Tritium’s short lifespan means that, without a steady resupply of the material, most nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal will eventually stop working. Tritium’s lifespan also creates a problem for the arms control community. Many environmental and arms control groups, while loath to support the construction of a new production reactor, find it hard to oppose a steady tritium supply in the face of arguments for “maintaining deterrence.” As Albright says, “tritium erodes political alliances.”

But for some the question is not hard to answer. “I say we shut the facilities down. They are just too dangerous,” says physicist Arthur Dexter, who for three decades worked for the Department of Energy at the Argonne Laboratory and then at the Savannah River Plant. Damon Moglen, director of Greenpeace’s nuclear campaigns, agrees: “Ensuring environmental health and safety requires that plutonium and tritium production stop. If this means the Soviet Union and the United States have to start thinking seriously about disarmament, then so be it.”

The Federation of American Scientists, Greenpeace, the Environmental Policy Institute, the Energy Research Foundation, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Andre Carothers is editor of Greenpeace Magazine.