The ’50s and ’60s were not an assemblage of rocking and rolling “Happy Days” with “Laverne & Shirley” working at a brew factory singing, “Give us any chance we will make it… We’re going to make our dreams come true.”
During that time the Cold War ensured so — the United States and Russia (and later Red China) all feared the other would launch a nuclear bomb that would set off World War III, which would have made much of the planet a radioactive shroud.
These fears led to a cinematic culture that imagined futures where mutants, vampires and other zombies ruled the planet.
A fall 2010 report cited a radioactive rabbit near the former Hanford nuclear facility in Washington, along with traces of radioactive mouse droppings. Anecdotal reports tell of a fish set for mounting that swam in Ohio exploding overnight at a taxidermist. And, if you dig deep enough in certain locations, you’ll find various colors and types of hazardous goo.
West Virginia has a major tourist attraction that had been a top secret and highly classified installation.
Due to the proximity to Washington D.C., the government built a secret luxury bunker for essential government officials under the Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs.
Since the project would ensure the survival of the American way, construction personnel and community members kept the bomb bunker secret until the end of the arms race.
Now, the bunker has become a prominent tourist attraction as an example of preserved retro preservation, including dormitories for the members of Congress and Senators.
However, the Mountain State and adjoining neighbors — Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee — have some waste relics where tourists are unwelcome.
When the United States developed the technology to build atomic weapons, the government involved large corporate manufacturers to participate in perfecting the ingredients of weapons (code name: Manhattan Project), which led to the dropping of two nuclear weapons on Japan.
The components for nuclear bombs were developed at a string of secret locations scattered around the U.S. Three nearby plants — Oak Ridge, Paducah and Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plants — enriched uranium, plutonium and other fissionable materials.
Huntington had its “secret” plant too; it reportedly placed the city on the U.S.S.R. priority list for a first strike in the event of war.
The Huntington Pilot (Uranium Processing and Recycling) Plant (HPP, also known as Reduction Pilot Plant) was a non-descript five story brick structure separated by its own high security fence and guard station, where entry required a security clearance.
What was so secret?
As sunset occurred classification, descriptions of the plant have emerged. Formulas and specific chemicals remain classified, as they are used in the production of nuclear weapons.
Many workers went to their graves believing it was patriotic; however, Uncle Sam had not been upfront with them: They had labored in toxic dust and residue, some of which was vented out in the ’50s through the skylight into the air of the city.
Imagine a brick and steel thatched together factory building with blast doors on the first floor. Located near a railway spur, armed guards (either FBI or Secret Service) accompanied the deliveries and the dispatches. Employees had to pass a security clearance. The factory was contained behind a fenced-in area.
Manufacturing or recycling does not sound so ominous, but the concoction of nickel carbonyl plus uranium was toxic. Further, as the atomic threats subsided, the DOE wanted to find other ways to recapture their expensive investments in all those nuclear warheads.
To do so, they worked on several processes; one would separate nickel from nasty radioactive chemicals. More specifically, radioactive materials were dipped into pits, burned and separated for recycling, creating radioactive dust and fog that would regularly be discharged into the air after midnight.
Former components of atomic weapons were trucked in or sent by rail for recycling. Unfortunately, the products themselves were radioactive. They contaminated most of the Huntington Pilot Plant with such radioactive elements as plutonium, neptunium and other radioactive isotopes or traces thereof.
HUNTINGTON OPERATION 1951-1962; REMOVAL 1978-1979
The HPP opened in 1951 following a brief correspondence in which the DOE considered using a furnace on the site.
Instead, the DOE leased the plant. Its products were stored in cylinders. Some resembled fingernail sized potato chips or ingots. Most were shipped under heavy guard back to Oak Ridge, Tenn.
By 1962, instead of expanding recycling, the plant was placed on “cold stand by.” In 1978, a report stated the factory had such severe contamination that it would be dismantled, transported to Piketon, Ohio, and buried (trucks and rail cars too) in an unlined ditch at the Ohio site’s “classified burial ground.”
Another memorandum, in part stated: “The process equipment and piping were unsuitable for conventional disposal and consequently scheduled for disposal in the classified burial ground at the Portsmouth, Ohio, Gaseous Diffusion plant.” The memo continued that the residue unloading system, building walls, floors and structural members were also slightly contaminated and contained classified material.
Although many workers went to their graves keeping the secret in the name of patriotism, Uncle Sam had allowed workers to receive toxic occupation doses of radiation over their lifetime. According to a 2010 government website, about $5 million dollars in compensation has been paid to former HPP/RPP workers and/or their survivors.
Congress has dedicated Oct. 30 as a remembrance day for survivors.
SEARCHING FOR HIDDEN DATA
The secrets of the HPP/RPP do not come easily. Although some retirees have spoken at length, other still feel bound by the Cold War classification status. At a recent assembly in a fast food restaurant of former workers (some on crutches and even oxygen), about 10 percent eagerly shared information while the others spoke quietly amongst themselves.
Data comes from the Center for Disease Control, Department of Energy, OSHA, Department of Labor, DOE, and Federal Register. A chance “hit” from the Federal Register (Vol. 66 , No. 11) classified the plant as an atomic weapons employer of the DOE.
These facilities by definition processed or produced material that emitted radiation and was used in the production of an atomic weapon (“For the purpose of this notice [in the Federal Register] only those facilities [are listed] whose work involved radioactive material that was connected to the weapons production chain.”]
ONE WORKER DIED IN 10 DAYS
A transcript from the Advisory Commission on Human Radiation Experiments dated Oct 21, 1994 states, “There is a secret crew [in Piketon] that’s on call and they do things inspectors never see or know about,” stated Diana Salsbury to the committee. “The uranium plant from Huntington, West Virginia, was so contaminated that it had to be buried in a shallow trench, that’s what [now dead worker ] Owen Thompson buried, was a whole contaminated factory. What he thought was green water in that open
trench was nickel… Two contractors who were involved in dismantling it died from the exposure. One from a spark; the other within 10 days.”
WORKERS CALL FOUL AFTER CLASSIFIED BURIAL
The secret nighttime burial of the Huntington plant at Piketon eventually led to workers uniting and demanding to know exactly what types of elements they were exposed to in the course of their 40 hour per week jobs.
After years of denial, in the 1990s, the Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Energy, at least partially came clean, by admitting that work at the various nuclear and diffusion plants had harmed the health of employees.
Congress passed a bill allowing them to receive compensation for certain cancers. The plant once in Huntington’s East End was on the list.
ONCE BURIED… It LEAKS
When the remains of the HPP/RPP were placed in trenches and covered over in 1979, there were no protective layers between the dirt and the materials. Years later, radioactive waters leached into a nearby creek, then the Scioto River and finally the Ohio River.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to contain the contamination and now monitors drainage.
In the words of former worker Vina Colley, “The Scioto empties into the Ohio River and down to the Mississippi. The whole world is being affected by what nuclear facilities are producing and releasing into the environment.” Colley is President of Portsmouth/Piketon Residents for Environmental Safety and Security (PRESS) and co-founder of National Nuclear Workers for Justice.
Terri Smith, a member of the Portsmouth Diffusion Site Specific Advisory Board, stated, “I’m open minded about a safe nuclear power plant, but the fact is there never has been one. How can people so naively say we’re going to have a safe one? [Electrical power from] nuclear is quick, convenient and cheap. But if there is a contractor that can run a safe, nuclear power plant, there’s no record of it.”
During the first portion of her testimony, Salisbury explains that the thinly populated Appalachian areas appealed to the government for the nuclear plants:
“The location and function of the three Federal facilities located in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Paducah, Ky., and Portsmouth, Ohio, are critical to the committee’s task. These facilities were designed to enrich uranium for military weapons and were located in rural regions of the Appalachian Mountains. That is where these facilities were placed. They were put away from people. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the word. We consider that we’re people. The Appalachian population represents one group selected to bear the risks and burdens for the greater societal good.”
NO SNOW ON CONCRETE
As I’ve said a concrete pad and former compressor building remain on the Special Metals lot in Huntington. Workers have stated that no matter how many inches of snow falls, the concrete pad remains perfectly clear of the white stuff. But in the ’90s, the DOE released the site from further consideration of residual radiation, despite the lengthy half lives of some of the materials.
Since recycling was a mission, some recycled material sold contained radioactive contents. The feds stopped selling potential glow in the dark consumer items in the ’90s. They want to resume, counting on improved removal of contamination based on 21st Century technology.
The list of facilities in the Federal Register are the only ones covered for special compensations. Literally, hundreds of other factories operate that utilized products from the atomic plants and thus may have exposed workers to occupational radiation.
But a federal agency determines what is safe for “occupational” workers and another one “reconstructs” how much radiation might have been absorbed when plants operated.
Ironically, in 2010, a health project manager stated in a transcript that the levels at Huntington could have been tenfold higher. In addition, there were no tests made of radiation levels between the 1962 cold shut down and in 1980 following the removal of the structure.
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