Oak Ridge, Tennessee

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Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Along with towns such as Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the area around the Savannah River in Georgia, Oak Ridge is central to the history of the development of nuclear weapons in the United States. It has also come to represent many of the environmental consequences of nuclear research and weapons production.

Oak Ridge was a small, sleepy town when it was selected as a research site in the 1940s for the development of the atomic bomb. Amidst an atmosphere of intense secrecy, the government built the Oak Ridge National Laboratories within a period of months and assembled a force of 75,000 scientists. These physicists, engineers, and others worked under extreme security to design various components of the hydrogen bomb. Their research was carried out under the auspices of the Manhattan Project, though the tasks were compartmentalized and few scientists are thought to have been aware of the larger significance of their work.

After the end of World War II, the laboratories at Oak Ridge were used for the research activities and weapons production of the Cold War. Although the area did experience decreases in the number of highly trained personnel, the research center remained an important part of the government's network of national laboratories. During this period, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) took over the management of the Oak Ridge laboratories and subcontracted administrative operations to such private corporations as Union Carbide and the Martin Marietta Corporation. Peacetime activities also included major research and educational initiatives developed in association with the local university.

Because of the urgency and secrecy under which military research was conducted at Oak Ridge, little attention was paid to the health impacts of radiation or the safe disposal of hazardous waste . Starting in 1951, the research facilities were responsible for storing 2.7 million gallons (10.2 million liters) of concentrated acids and radioactive wastes in open ponds. 76,000 rusting barrels and drums containing mixed radioactive wastes remained on the site. Millions of cubic yards of toxic and radioactive waste were also buried in the ground with no containment precautions. 2.4 million pounds (1 million kg) of mercury and an unknown amount of uranium are estimated to have been released into the ambient environment through the air, water and soil pathways. The DOE has spent $1.5 billion evaluating the level of contamination and planning remediation and treatment activities, and that figure is expected to grow exponentially. Cleanup programs are now the focus of much of the research done by the nuclear scientists at Oak Ridge.

Vegetation and wildlife (water fleas, frogs and deer) around the laboratories have set off high readings of radioactivity in Geiger counters. Radionuclides such as strontium, tritium and plutonium have been traced in surface waters 40 miles (64 km) downstream of the plant. However, few published studies exist on human health effects from hazardous waste disposal in the area. Studies that examined short term cancer rates in the male worker population found no correlation between cancer risk and worker radiation exposure ; these studies also noted that Oak Ridge employees were actually 20% less likely to die from cancer as the rest of the countrya fact which may be due to the quality of their medical care. Yet studies that followed the health patterns of workers over a period of 40 years documented that cancer risk did indeed increase by 5% with each rem of increasing radiation exposure. These studies also found that white male workers at the laboratories had a 63% higher leukemia death rate than the national average.

In 1977 large amounts of employee health records were deliberately destroyed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and the DOE has attempted to influence the interpretation and publication of health studies on the effects of radiation exposure. These facts raise troubling questions for many about the level of knowledge at the research center of the effects of low-level radiation. Both the laboratories and the town itself are considered case studies of the environmental problems that can be caused by large federal facilities operating under the protection of national security.

[Douglas Smith ]



"Low-Level Radiation: Higher Long-Term Risk?" Science News 139 (March 23, 1991): 181.

Thompson, D. "Living Happily Near a Nuclear Trash Heap." Time 139 (May 11, 1992): 5354.