Mixed Legacy for Ky. Uranium Town
By Kimberly Hefling
Associated Press
October 25, 2002

PADUCAH, Ky. - A half-century ago, western Kentucky was so thrilled about the opening of a Cold War uranium enrichment plant that it gave communities names like "Cimota" - Atomic spelled backward.

Decades later, workers file into Paducah's "Sick Workers Office," pulling oxygen tanks and fighting incurable tumors - angry, scared, dying.

As they marked the 50th anniversary this week of the opening of Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, residents pondered a mixed legacy: The facility turned the town into a pocket of wealth in a poor region, but at what cost?

Workers were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, and scores slowly became sick with diseases that the government only recently admitted responsibility for.

"People come in here very sick. They feel like they've lost their dignity," said Stewart Tolar, site manager at the Energy Employees Compensation Resource Center.

In 1999, then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson issued an apology in Paducah after the government reversed decades of denial and conceded that many workers did get sick because of on-the-job exposure.

An entitlement law later provided lifetime medical care and a tax-free lump sum of $150,000 to sick workers exposed to cancer-causing radiation and silica or beryllium, which can cause lung diseases.

Since the program began last year, about $62.8 million has been distributed to former and current workers and their survivors through the resource office in Paducah, Tolar said.

But recognition came too late for many. Former plant worker Joe Harding, for example, was denied compensation even though his bones contained 34,000 times the expected concentration of uranium before he died in 1980.

In addition to the health disaster, the Energy Department estimated it would take 10 years and $1.3 billion more than the $400 million already spent to clean up environmental contamination.

Even so, many former workers say seeing the town get rich while doing what many considered their patriotic duty during the Cold War - making weapons-grade uranium for warheads - made everything worthwhile.

"It's been a good salary and it's got good benefits," said Rodney Cook 53, a shift superintendent who had part of a lung removed in March because of exposure to asbestos he believed he received during the 27 years he has worked at the plant. "I don't blame anybody for it. It was just part of the job."

James Dew, 77, who retired as a top executive in 1998 after 38 years, said he would not do it again. Dew developed a pituitary tumor, and blames it and other health problems on radiation exposure. He sued, but the case was thrown out. He has not yet filed for the $150,000 compensation.

"They should have told people what was in the material we were processing and the hazards involved," said Dew, of Gallatin, Tenn. Still, he has fond memories: "The people who worked there were a great bunch of people."

With the increase in demand for engineers and scientist at the plant, the middle and upper classes expanded in what had primarily been a river and railroad town.

To this day, the Paducah facility is western Kentucky's biggest private employer with more than 1,700 workers, and one of the largest employers in the state.

After U.S. Enrichment Corp. last year suspended operations at a sister uranium facility in Piketon, Ohio, Paducah became the only place in the nation where uranium is enriched for the commercial nuclear industry.

Opening the plant "was a major event in the history of the city," said Don Pepper, 78, who moved here in 1951 to work as a reporter. "It set the character of this city for a long time."

The Energy Department initially thought 3,000 to 4,000 people nationwide might be eligible for compensation for nuclear-weapons related work during the Cold War, but the accuracy of that estimate is unclear, in part because of poor record keeping.

Despite all that, Paducah, population 27,000, is now a rival with Piketon to attract a new uranium enrichment plant using safer and more efficient centrifuge technology.

"This community and this region has been supportive of the plant over the last 50 years," said former plant employee Susan Zimmerman Guess. "The next technology should be located here in Paducah."

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