Cover Up Brought Death, Illness for Nuclear Workers

Updated 6 years ago by Tony E. Rutherford, News Editor
Cover Up Brought Death, Illness for Nuclear Workers

(c) Tony E. Rutherford & HNN Part of a Series (Permission to quote with Attribution granted.)

Editor's Note: The article is based on one-on-one interviews with two living survivors and hundreds of pages of documents. They carried weapons at Piketon in 1979 when the debris from the then classified uranium and nickel processing Huntington Pilot Plant were buried.

Corporate greed left a man burned and agonizing with his hair falling out, face peeling and spitting up portions of his lung lining  at  a hospital intensive care room suffering from to unknown chemical substances.  A  OSHA certified security guard came to grips with a series of “red flags,” which saved his fellow workers life and initiated a nearly twenty year journey seeking compensation and justice for  endless lives lost and those still suffering in virtual silence.

The scenario has some resemblance to the leveraged IPO’s and bail outs from the Great Recession. At the time of privatization, the Gaseous Diffusion Plant had $2.5 billion in quarterly profits. A get on the ground floor no brainer. However, the public/private contract contained incentives for no lost time accidents, which lead to an environment of cover up assisted by a partial pretense of protecting national security. “Who’s going to buy stock in something that is killing people,” asked Charles Lawson, one of the two security guards.

Former Ohio Representative and later governor Ted Strickland (D 1976-2006, Governor, 2007-2010) had opposed the privatization of the uranium gaseous diffusion plants which began under the Energy Policy  Act (EPACT) of 1992.

During a 2000 oversight hearing, Rep. Strickland had been one of many questioning the process that resulted in an investment grade Initial Public Offering that plummeted to “junk” status. Although the Department of Energy retained liability for legacy contamination and health issues prior to privatization, the United States Enrichment Corp. became at least in part responsible afterwards. It also received the favored status of two cent per kilowatt hour electricity rates. The company's junk investments were enticing; they were too big to fail.

“What we know now about privatization is that it was a classic case of massive insider enrichment. A handful of insiders got rich at the expense of national security, domestic energy security, the well-being of workers, local economies, and taxpayers. How did it happen, " Strickland asked at the oversight hearing in 2000?

 The union contract contained safety incentives which allowed minimization of work related time off accidents, even as the equipment itself in the plant received an unreliable  rating.


Agree or disagree with  prior “bailouts,” the Obama administration has approved a loan guarantee for the American Centrifuge concept at Piketon, the newest spin on profits from peaceful use of former WMD’s. Once completed on the site of the former Gaseous Diffusion Plant hundreds of jobs will be created.


To recognize the ramifications of worker safety at the plant, examine one hospitalized time off accident, which lead to the unraveling of veiled reports that detail the corporate culture of it didn’t happen until one by one documents were slowly found and made public.



Cover Up Brought Death, Illness for Nuclear Workers


Delayed by a supervisor for more than twelve hours  from initiating the investigation,  Lawson, the next morning found the normally dusty scene spotless, he would find a pristine, neatly written log book, a less injured worker coughing and his skin as red as a strong sunburn.
“You can’t tell the doctor about what he was exposed to, it’s classified,” a superior told Lawson.
Looking  at the list of atomic  chemicals , Lawson up the phone an told his friend’s nurse enough so he would be treated with massive doses of oxygen applied to his lungs.
Reflecting back on the incident, Lawson now realizes,  they wanted Walburn to die.  A fatality  would have then been easier to cover up massive numbers of non-contractual compliances at the nuclear diffusion plant. A lost time accident , especially a serious one, meant detailed interviews , an outside investigation, and possible loss of incentive bonuses.   Neither the government nor stakeholders wanted it known before an I.P.O. that the billions in  profits and the lead in W.M.D’s came from  masking of the contamination, exposures, leaks, and waste from production of and recycling of nuclear weapons for the peaceful purpose of generating “clean” electricity. Instead, they opted for a “scheme” that relied upon no one telling the full truth and continuing paying high wages to workers who would succumb in later years to what one investigator repeatedly labeled negligent manslaughter.  Surprisingly, safety lapses exceed unlearned lessons from  1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010.
Standing two stories and stretching one-half mile in length and one-quarter mile wide, security guards inspected workers when they checked in to work and when they clocked out.  Inside, they labored in the Atoms for Peace program converting former Weapons of Mass Destruction into fuel cells suitable for use in a nuclear power plant generating electricity. The sensitive and classified chemical process meant millions, even billions, of dollars in profits for private enterprise and quasi-governmental agencies associated with the Department of Energy and its predecessors.
The structure had two entrances. The guards were in bullet proof portals. “It was stricter than going through an airport metal detector. We talked through an intercom,” Chip Lawson recalled. If an alarm went off, the guards left the portal and performed a hand search for weapons or explosives. “We had
to make sure no one sneaked in something or sneaked something out.”  


The valuable content meant that, for instance, mop water would be sifted for traces of the substance. Inside, the structure was divided into cubicles. Pipes, dust, and sounds of vibrations were everywhere.
As part of the industrial process, the contents known as “cells” went through a complex network of heated, often patched, pipes. The procedures were impacted by temperature and barometric pressure. During this push separating higher enriched fuel, radioactive substances stuck to the inside of the pipes and leaked through unplugged fractures in the tubes.  Every so often, the pipes themselves had to be cleansed of  radioactive and contaminated material using a corrosive. By agreement, the security guards were supposed to be warned when the contents of a cylinder was shot through the apparatus. They would then step yards away from the pipes so as not to breathe any of the mixture.
On the morning shift, two security guards stood near a desk watching over a valuable substance lying in the floor under fence wire. Although no one could visually detect anything amiss, Walburn complained, “ I thought I was going to die.I was on fire… I couldn’t breathe.” He had stepped into an invisible plume of gas. His buddy escaped breathing only a portion of the substance that leaked from the pipe.
Walburn asked to go home. A supervisor told him to remain at work, “We are short-handed.”
At the end of his shift, Walburn drove himself to the hospital where his wife worked as a nurse. Seeing his face peeling with blisters, she asked, “What happened to you?”
“I don’t know,” he husband said. By this time he burned so bad that he was on “auto pilot.”
Triaged immediately, Walburn recalled, “I was incoherent , not getting enough oxygen, I was shutting down.”
Lawson did not work  the day of the accident. Although he was the OSHA certified accident investigator, his supervisor told him by phone, “Jeff has been badly hurt. We want you to come in tomorrow morning.”  Already questioning the delay as inconsistent with investigative procedures, the investigator began the morning after. As he surveyed the accident location and spoke with workers, “red flags” mounted.
 “I knew I had been lied to. Something had happened. There was more going on that what we could see,” he recalled.


Among the “flags” pointing at untruths:

Cover Up Brought Death, Illness for Nuclear Workers

  • The man on duty the day of the accident as a worker’s health rep was not sent to the scene until about 2 p.m.
  • When Lawson viewed the scene the next day, the normally …was spotless
  • Security logs which normally were dusty , dirty , crinkled, and sprinkled with messy notes were pristine.
  • An employee reported that a “fan” had been run in the accident area afterwards, which dissipated the plume.
  • Guards and workers wore radiation counters known as dosimeters; the dosages had been altered. Walburn’s shallow dose went from 27 to zero. (A violation of criminal law.)
  • Gamma readings were not taken
  • It’s simply radon.

Meanwhile, fighting for his life at the hospital, Walburn called Lawson. “I knew that he would do what was right.”

What was right meant a compassionate spontaneous determination to risk partially violating his security clearance by telling medical personnel more specifics from a so-called “white paper” that revealed the man had inhaled HF (hydrogen fluoride) gas from highly weapons grade enriched uranium.

This would not be the first or the last “out-gassing.” Lawson told that in the 1980s when the work was still classified an open valve allowed millions of dollars of fuel to escape for a month into the environment. Three more people would suffer injuries from an "out-gassing" near where Walburn had been exposed. None of them would be treated at a hospital, just the plant's infirmary. ("Three people injured in a chemical intake was an automatic OSHA recordable," Walburn said. It would have hurt the move to privatization. )

“They had already stated giving him oxygen,” Lawson remembered.

“After I talked to the nurse, they went to 100% oxygen.” The treatment also included steroids and other anti-inflammatory drugs. Walburn said all the chemicals to which he was exposed were still not revealed.


That's not the full 'out gassing' story. The Columbus Dispatch told it years ago. 

As a reminder, Lawson said that in 1984-1985 outgassings of 97% assay weapons grade uranium enriched went out into the air for 30 days. "Monumental amounts were released by a turn of the wrong valve [which allowed] pumping enriched uranium into the atmosphere and raining down on the plant. It came back down as solid as snow. Ops had to clean people's roofs of enriched uranium," Lawson said. "We lost millions of dollars of DOD product because someone turned the wrong valve. Making roof checks gave us a dose. Nobody said anything then, the "lost" contents were "classified..."

The mistakes at Japan’s Fukushima have shined a light on the U.S. nuclear industry. Does it matter that the accident took place in 1994?  Despite that time frame,  EEOCPA, OSHA, DOE, DOL, retirees, workers, family members and attorneys continue addressing the legacy of the Cold War era of weapons proliferation and efforts to dismantle those same armaments, clean up the toxic waste where the weapons were built, and compensate those who mostly unknowingly labored in an environment that exposed them to cancer causing radiation.

Lawson and Walburn have continued assembling  records. They talk to members of the press and elected officials. Unfortunately,  administrative hearing after administrative hearing (accessed by PDF on line through CDC/NIOSH), an open secret of an alleged criminal obstruction of justice conspiracy festers.

Cover Up Brought Death, Illness for Nuclear Workers







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