Eliza Johnson and her family lived near the plant. Johnson, now 85, watched as first her husband and then her daughter came down with severe cancer. She helped care for them during their treatment and in the end helped to bury them.  (Source: S.C. Spangler/Tribune-Review)
Nuclear power -- cheap, reliable... and safe? Not always.

Nuclear plants have had their success stories -- for example the plants that survived an earthquake in Japan largely unharmed.  However, despite the fair share of success stories, there are also some grim cautionary tales of what to avoid in nuclear power and why safety precautions, regulations, and adopting modern designs are of an utmost importance to nuclear power plants and nuclear processing facilities.

One largely unnoticed example is gaining big national attention thanks to a hefty $27.5M USD settlement awarded to the 250 plaintiffs who suffered disease and death due to poor regulation and flaws in the technology.  The story begins in Apollo and Parks Township in Armstrong county Pennsylvania, back in the late 1950s.  The Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp., eager to profit at the booming trend to exploit nuclear energy, jumped at the chance of opening new facilities to process nuclear fuel.  In 1959 they opened two new plants in the respective townships, which processed both uranium and plutonium fuels.

Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) took over the plants in 1967 and reaped the rewards of lucrative contracts during the Cold War.  Afterward, Babcock & Wilcox Co bought out ARCO's stake, assuming responsibility for the plants in 1971.  The plants continued to operate until 1983.

In the late 80s and early 90s, the damages the plants had inflicted on the surrounding communities just began to become apparent.  Between 1990 and 1995 the buildings were destroyed and thousands of tons of radioactive materials were removed in a cleanup project.  However, by then it was far too late for some of the County's citizens; the damage had already been done.

Those living near the plants stated that they had no idea the danger they were in, assuming the government would protect them.  The employees were equally confident.  Gary Walker, 67, who grew up in the area and went to work at Apollo plant in 1959, was among those exposed.  Over the course of his 30 year career, he would later discover he was exposed multiple times to deadly uranium radiation.

Walker states, "Back then, they threw that stuff around like it was nothing.  No one really knew what it could do to you.  They never warned us. Early on, there was a taped line on the floor that divided the contaminated area from the side that wasn't contaminated.  But it was in the air."

Resident Lawrence Frain lived near the plant and recalls that between 1959 and 1963 the plants sooty emissions would often leave a thick gray-white film on his 1960 Ford.  He and other residents had no idea that the smog they were breathing was filled with radioactive waste.  He recalls, "I remember a guy walking around with a meter. Every now and then, he'd say 'They let a lot out last night.' Neighbors thought he was a little off, but maybe he knew something."

The toll was devastating.  The citizens began to develop brain tumors, cancer, and beryllium disease at alarming rates.  Walker is among those who suffered, after giving his life to the plants.  He has severe beryllium disease that destroyed one of his kidneys.  With a transplant he is surviving, but his other kidney is failing now as well, so he must go in for daily dialysis treatments.

Frain, 68, was also afflicted, suffering from melanoma.  And his worst losses were not his own health, but that of his loved ones.  His wife Helen developed colon cancer and after three grueling years of surgeries, treatments, and colostomy bags for waste removal died.  The retired coal miner recalls, "She was full of it.  The doctor who operated on her asked me if we lived close to the plant and when I said that we did, he said, 'I thought so.'"

Frain also lost his daughter to cancer.   Eliza Johnson also lost two family members -- first her husband, and then her daughter, a cancer research nurse.  After months of fighting the disease, it overcame them and they passed on and she helped to bury them.  She mournfully remarks, "I'd have rather it been me instead of them."

Johnson and other plaintiffs received little support from the government.  Despite an expert epidemiologist analysis during the case which concluded that disease levels "[fell] outside the normal range", the state refused to classify the area as a cancer cluster.  With nowhere else to turn the families sued ARCO in federal court.  Eight plaintiffs were represented.  The jury ordered a settlement of $35M USD in 1998, finally promising some relief to the families' suffering.    However to the family's dismay, U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose ordered a retrial due to errors in the trial. Says one plaintiff, "All of the verdicts were taken away."

Babcock & Wilcox then filed bankruptcy and the cases were not retried.  Finally after years of inaction, a new suit against Atlantic Richfield Co. with 250 plaintiffs has succeeded securing a settlement of $27.5 million. Another new suit is pending against Babcock & Wilcox in federal court, but due to the company's uncertain financial status it is unclear how much damages could be collected. 

Average payouts from the settlement will be about $35,000 and a few of the sicker plaintiffs will get as much as $500,000.  Park and other plant employees may soon also be eligible for $150,000 in relief offered by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act passed by Congress in 2000.  The final approval for the plants' eligibility designation will be made sometime next year.

While the settlement brings some relief to residents and allows them to pay their medical bills, nothing compares to their losses.  Says Johnson, 85, talking about her daughter and former husband, "They meant more to me than if I got a million dollars.  My daughter ... that's one in my life that I'll never get over."

Obviously a plethora of advancements have made nuclear plants safer in recent years.  The context: stories like these are cautionary tales to the resurgent nuclear industry of just how important it is to pay the extra money for the new state-of-the-art designs and to not skimp on cleanup efforts when the plant finally closes.  If not, the damages done on citizens may be irreparable, as in the case of the residents of Armstrong County.

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