14 April 2017

My Radioactive Childhood

Something recently reminded me of the fact that I grew up a nine-minute drive (fewer than three miles as the crow flies) from a nuclear material processing facility.

On top of Mount Rumpke...
courtesy Brandon C on Flickr
I do delight in telling people that I grew up about five minutes away (also fewer than three miles) away from Mount Rumpke, the highest point in Hamilton County-- and the sixth-highest garbage dump in the United States. When I was in the fifth grade, there was a landslide that exposed 15 acres of waste. The gas released into the atmosphere could be smelled from miles around. We had to have indoor recess for a week, because of how bad it was. Later that year, a lightning strike caused the dump to catch on fire. It burned for six days.

Anyway, three miles in the other direction (I grew up in a nice neighborhood I swear) lies the Feed Materials Production Center (Fernald site), a facility for converting uranium ore into metal, for use in nuclear weapons. Its various plants came on-line 1951-54; by 1989 it was essentially closed because demand for refined uranium had declined substantially with the winding down of the Cold War.

Though I think it was technically known the plant was there, it operated until the 1980s in relative secrecy. But in 1981, wells near Fernald were discovered to be contaminated, which was not disclosed to the public until 1984, local residents initiated a class-action lawsuit. In the interim, residents had drank from those wells. In 1986, two storage units vented when they oughtn't, and another cracked. According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, "from 1952-1989, 470,000 kilograms of uranium dust and 160,000 curies of radon-222 were released into the atmosphere, while 90,000 kilograms of uranium were released into surface water." Energy Department officials told the plant to continue production without regard for environmental laws.

the Fernald employee newsletter
Public outcry was exacerbated by the way the plant covered up its activities. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported
In 1955, Angelo Gallina was severely burned by uranium-laced acid when he tried to clear a clogged chute with a sledgehammer. Rather than being hospitalized he was treated for two weeks at the plant's first aid station. During his recovery, he was escorted to the plant to shuffle paper so that the management would not have to report a lost work time accident.
Later, the paper discovered that researchers had a secret laboratory to conduct radiation experiments using the body parts of deceased employees and private citizens.

We didn't move to that house until 1990, and most of my memories of the controversy come from later, around 1994-96, when there was a lot of controversy surrounding FERMCO, the contractor hired to clean up the production site. (I think they were spending wastefully and also keeping things from the government.)

My mother use to make jokes about Fernald and its effects on us. In 2013, a University of Cincinnati study found a higher rate of cancer among former Fernald employees than the general population, but participants in the Fernald (Resident) Medical Monitoring Program (open to anyone who lived within five miles of the plant from 1952 to 1984, so not us) actually reported lower than average death and cancer rates than the general population.

It's a nature preserve now. I've never been.

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