Democracy and Pantex BY LARRY EGBERT THE PANTEX PLANT is a major employer in Amarillo. Pantex work is clearly defined: “The mission of this government-owned, contractor-operated facility is fourfold: assembly of nuclear weapons, disassembly of nuclear weapons, fabrication of chemical high explosive components for nuclear weapons, and maintenance and evaluation of nuclear weapons. In all operations, the top priorities are the safety and health of plant personnel, the safety and health of the public, and the protection of the environment.” The Battelle Memorial Institute is a subcontractor for all Environment, Safety and Health forward. The DOE wants to make atomic bombs and this is a way that does not harm the health of employees or neighbors, or damage the environment for future generations or other forms of life than just us humans. Once, the United States had the “Evil Empire” to deal with, so we needed to make our bombs in secret. To maintain secrecy, when mistakes were made they were often covered up. Employees and neighbors of Pantex were made to feel secure and comfortable that there was little risk to working in or living near Pantex. When the Evil Empire disappeared, Pantex began storing nuclear warheads. In other words, Pantex is now the dumpsite for Meanwhile, Physicians for Social Responsibility had evaluated the ES&H research done by the Department of Energy and found that the DOE systematically designed research to cover up hazards and to discourage researchers who might have demonstrated risks involved in the building of atomic bombs. In 1983, in Texas we had formed the Red River Peace Network, concerned that Pantex and the making of atomic bombs were dangerous, that war was not the best way to solve international arguments, and that the constant preparation for war was sure to diminish our ability to commit resources to education and public health. It was a logical step for Physicians for Social Responsibility to join with the Red River Network in our effort to look into Pantex’ s commitment to ES&H. \\ We succeeded in bringing Dr. Victor Sidel to lead a team of concerned outsiders in an Larry Egbert, professor of anesthesiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He does not speak for the medical school. evaluation of exactly how Pantex and its Battelle ES&H people intend to protect Pantex employees and neighbors. Dr. Sidel is a Distinguished University Professor of Community Medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the Bronx, New York. He is former president of the American Public Health Association and also of Physicians for Social Responsibility. As a member of his profession, he has an international reputation in ES&H issues and, like members of the Red River Peace Network, he is not a part of the government. The challenge we face is mind boggling. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. It will be toxic for more than 100,000 years, while it decays into uranium-235, which is also toxic. Do we, the neighbors of Pantex, expect the government to monitor the warehoused plutonium for longer than 100,000 years? Do you trust your government so much that you will trust it with this crucial task for that long? We maintain that there must be outside citizen oversight of the plutonium dump and we expected Dr. Sidel to add the opinion of a public health expert to our arguments. He asked Pantex officials about the only research that has been published concerning ES&H at Pantex a study done by John F. Acquavella and his DOE colleagues at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and published in Health Physics in 1985. Researchers found no evidence of an increase in mortality that could be connected to employment at Pantex. But the study covered too short a time period to detect cancers. We are encouraged that the DOE is willing to talk with us. As we started our first meeting in February, I reminded them that two of our Red River Peace Network members had been arrested at Pantex and jailed. It is wonderful that we can now sit down and talk together about ES&H. The talks are only a beginning. There is no ongoing effort to update the old study. Perhaps soon DOE’s new policy of openness will move health and safety hazard data into the hands of Pantex employees and neighbors. However, such access to information is not happening yet. DOE officials also say they do annual physical examinations of employees and keep records of doses of radiation exposure and exposure to other chemicals with which employees come into contact. But these data are not tabulated into any form that might provide insight into what occupational hazards really exist. We were told by DOE officials that the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Public Health Service and the Texas Department of Health were also doing research and evaluation. When contacted, representatives of these government agencies said they are interested in our work but they have no data to share. Nor does DOE have any data to share with us. For our second meeting with DOE officials on June 2 we had agreed to meet with them and with a ATSDR-sponsored researcher from Boston University. At the last minute, the researcher was ordered not to join the meeting between citizens and DOE officials. ATSDR did not want the government to show a bias towards citizen groups, so meetings of DOE and Panhandle Area Neighbors and for Social Responsibility were to be avoided. What ATSDR missed was questioning of DOE health experts by our new epidemiology expert, Dr. Gregg Wilkinson, who as a DOE researcher recorded an excess of brain tumors near the Rocky Flats weapons plant in Colorado. \(For more on Wilkinson’s experiences with DOE, see Dead Reckoning: A Critical Review of the Department of Energy’s Epidemiological Research, by H. Jack Geiger, David Rush and others, published in 1992 by Physcians for Social One should not doubt the ability of the DOE to influence the ATSDR; they are both subcomponents of the same government. The DOE has frequently blocked attempts at open discussion about the hazards of making bombs. Why should we be surprised that the DOE has either failed to do the research or hidden the results? Would we be naive to suddenly expect the government to be open and democratic, inviting inquiry and respecting the concerns of citizens? There is an established tradition of secrecy and only time and persistence will make the Pantex Nuclear Weapons Facility a place where citizens can check out the quality of the management of their plutonium dump. We should all be prepared to persist. This summer, on the weekend of August 6-9, in commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Red River Peace Network will hold its 10th annual peace camp at the Peace Farm and in front of the Pantex facility. We have made a commitment to continue outside nongovernmental oversight of ES&H issues at Pantex. If you are interested in our work, let us know. We will be back to check on them again in the fall and are resolved to continue as long as there is a potential hazard from the plutonium. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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