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
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
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
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
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