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EXCLUSIVE: Man Who Assisted in Burial of Huntington Atomic Plant Endured "Silkwood"-like Decontamination Process, Green Goo, Brain Tumors
As the Cold War intensified, the AEC contracted for additional work at the classified venue on the campus of Huntington’s International Nickel. They wanted to recycle the valuable nickel and uranium out of radioactive fuel that had passed through reactors at nuclear powered plants and at gaseous diffusion plants. Once the material went through the reactors elsewhere, contaminants multiplied. In addition to nickel and uranium, solvents were used to melt and recycle. Plutonium, neptunium , and other radioactive materials were melted down in our city.
Where did the waste, sometimes referred to as "green goo" go?
In part, The AEC by night trucked debris from the HPP/RPP to the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, Piketon, Ohio, where the “hot” debris was buried with machine gun holding guards watching the burial. Years later, the ground water became contaminated away from the burial site. An aquifer , a creek, and a river became toxic too.
The “secret” facility has been a so-called “urban legend” filled with truths and myths convoluted by the long term government national security classification Significantly complicating the scenario, the federal government holds liability, but the corporation in years past had liability for its decisions and those made by the Atomic Energy Commission.
Owen Thompson, an employee at Piketon, testified in Cincinnati about his work in a “special” then classified section of the Piketon plant. He was present when debris from Huntington was buried. He testified that one man dropped dead immediately.
Mr. Thompson died from two brain tumors. According to later testimony from survivors, Thompson’s full account of what he endured and viewed had not been put on paper. The following is his testimony before the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, Outreach Panel, October 21, 1994:
PRESENTATION BY OWEN H. THOMPSON:
Our, our last person, before we break for lunch is Clifford Tidwell. I'm sorry, we did Cliff. I'm sorry, Mr. Owen Thompson. Is Owen Thompson -- great. Thank you, Mr. Thompson.
(Whereupon, a discussion was held off the record after which the following occurred:)
PRESENTATION BY OWEN H. THOMPSON:
MR. THOMPSON: Hello there. My name is Owen H. Thompson. I'm from Marion, Ohio. I live about ten miles from the Piketon/Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Processing Plant. It's been Martin Marietta. It's been Goodyear. I worked for them for 14 years.
I buried dumps [Editor’s Note: The Huntington Plant was one of those facilities buried] nobody knows about under machine-gun guard, under bond. I did jobs under, that were not covered under the Department of Energy, but at that time it was the Energy Research and Development Administration. They had a con-, they had a contract with this plant that at this time, when I was working in this one area called E Area, they were not covered under this. This was Goodyear Atomic's little game plant, their own little plant within a plant. I was on special team. It, I'm a clerk. I did my country wrong.
I call it a game because we were in it for two years. I got so contaminated I'd get 50, 50 feet from a hand marion machine (phonetic) and set it off. We would get so contaminated that they did me like they did Karen Silkwood in the Silkwood movie. And for four days I stood in the showers and had two men scrub me down with boric acid until I looked like a lobster.
They would call us, they could call me at any time, and they knew I'd come in. That's why they called me a special teams. So I'd get calls Saturday, you know, Saturday night, you know, "Come in." I just got maybe, sometimes I'd just get home and I'd go in. And, and they would have a hay wagon. You know what a hay wagon is? And they would have all these parts on it, and they would just, contamination was filthy, and we would get so, we would get so contaminated they would say, they would have a big dozer there that they had bought from [Huntington,] West Virginia.
I t was a strip-mining dozer, and it didn't take them long to dig a big hole. And they would dig these holes and we would go in and we would dump this stuff right in on the ground. And as we were being pulled out by the bulldozer, the wagon hooked to a truck, we would see this water coming up and it would just be turning soupy green like pea soup. We would look at each other and we would wonder, "Man, is this right?"
Back to the E Area. It started out in E Area. We was running 40-percent assay. It wasn't bad.
It was big tins of oxide. You'd shake it down like a tapper rye, shake it. It would go through a tower. It would burn hot.
Can't tell you, top secret, how hot we would get.
It would go into, from there into slope tanks, and the processing of the heat would cause what uranium was left in this jug that they were giving us, that it would go into the sloop tanks and it would be plutonium, transuranic, everything that comes out of a nuclear power plant.
They were looking for a way to do away with nuclear waste, and it didn't work. We were in this for two years until we got up to a point where we were running 97.6 assay uraniumhexofluoride. I was burnt many times. I was so contaminated I wanted an AVIVA.
We had a big release and I said, "Well, I want, I want, I want to be checked inside. I know I'm hot on the outside."
So I go over to the hospital inside the plant. They had a hospital right there inside the plant, and go back to the health physics part and they could not get a Geiger counter to me. I was so hot that they couldn't get one within about three feet of me or it did not set it off at its highest rate. I mean, I had thousands of counts of radiation on my body.
THE CHAIR: Let, let me, if you don't mind – do you mind if I ask you a question?
MR. THOMPSON: Sure.
THE CHAIR: Or do you, or you could choose to use the rest to continue, but, I mean, well, you would have to stop here, so let me just ask you to steal a couple of minutes here. Help us to understand the, the, the role, the relationship between the employer and the federal agency.
MR. THOMPSON: Okay.
THE CHAIR: What, what, what was that relationship?
MR. THOMPSON: The relationship was this: I was, I'm, I'm a, I'm nobody. I'm just a dumb hillbilly, big and strong. That's what they was looking for, and they hired me in, in 1975, September the eleventh, I believe it was, 1975, to do what they were saying was going to be a change-out. And what it was was the old machinery that they had put in back in the '30s and '40s was getting old and they had to either rebuild it or they had to put in new. And I was hired for seven years.
Well, I, like I said, I wasn't afraid to do anything. There was not anything I was afraid of. And when they would say, "Go in and do a job," I did it, no matter what. I was inside gopher boxes like you saw in the Silkwood movie. That's the only thing I can refer to as far as vision: plexiglass, gloves, you know, rubber gloves reaching in. And we would crawl around inside these.
Very primitive, very primitive means of, wrap a towel around your neck, put a face mask on, put a pair of paper coveralls on and climb in.
THE CHAIR: Mr. Thompson, don't think me rude, because I really want, you're very clear about that, what you mentioned earlier. And one of the things that's important for us as we try to understand the, the, the larger dimensions of your experience. You may show that there was a federal agency involved or related with the, with the corporation, and I was trying to have you go back and teach us a little bit more about that.
MR. THOMPSON: All right, when I was hired under En-, it, was under the Environmental, it was under the Environmental Research and Development Administration.
THE CHAIR: Okay. And did they –
MS. SALSBURY: Could I, could I barge in just a minute? He wants to know Department of Defense and the relationship between the Department of Energy and –
MR. THOMPSON: Oh, we were, oh, we were making what was, the process of the plant was, was to take a low grade of fuel that had already been made, uranium flouride, and upgrade it to a fuel that was submarine, atomic submarine.
THE CHAIR: Uh-huh. So that helps me understand. So one of the specific, and by the way, you're giving just tremendously clear information. And again, I hope you don't think I'm rude. I just want to make sure we get as much from you in the couple of minutes that we have. The, were there ever any governmental inspectors –
MR. THOMPSON: Fine.
THE CHAIR: -- that came by and either gave clear criteria to the contractors for medical supervision or safety supervision?
MR. THOMPSON: Well, okay, one time, and they put me right in there when I was first hired. They had it, they had run this for two years, so they had, they were going to get an inspector to come and, and inspect this to see if we, they could run it to get it certified and, but they'd been running it for two years without any certification.
THE CHAIR: Uh-huh.
When they brought this guy in from the plutonium plant out in Nevada they brought him into the facility. And I remember all the big shots walking through the place with him, and when he came out they asked him, they said, "Well, what doyou think of our little project?" MR. THOMPSON: So when they brought this guy -- Idon't know his name. Sorry. It's been too many years ago.
And his exact words were, there was myself and another operator in the place at the time. We weren't running because we were waiting to see if he would say we could, but I do have to say that the slope tanks that were in there were full of the plutonium at the time.
He said, "If I had my way I would dig this place up, this whole thing, and take it to Utah and bury it in lead.But being it's so big I will place my man," which he did, hesaid, "put a security key on this," that was supposed to be neverremoved.
He told me and my other employee with me to never enter it again as long as it existed.
Fine with us. I mean, we just got up and walked out. Then on the outside he ordered eight inches of lead shot put on the outsides of the walls, eight inches, eight inches of lead shot put on the ceiling upstairs to try to conceal the gamma and the beta radiation that was coming from this place.
He said it was ridiculous; that everything we were doing in there was supposed to be done with mechanical fingers. Now, I have to say something, because I know I'm running out of time quick.
From this I received two brain tumors from exposure. I received, I had to have my left ear cut off and sewn back on, and skin grafting. All my children have chronic allergies. My wife has upper respiratory problems. I have, oh, my goodness, I can hardly swallow milk. It won't go down. It's, I've burned my larynx so many times that it won't close or work right, you know, and I'll be taking a drink of milk and it will lock. I've done so many jobs that I'm so ashamed.
THE CHAIR: Well, it's a big step that you shared today. Let me ask if Dr. Stevenson has one last question.
DR. STEVENSON: Actually you've asked mine. I was concerned about health effects that you had suffered, and I just want to get clear. When did you leave that?
MR. THOMPSON: I went into brain lock, what they call "brain lock" in 1980-, December of 1985. I went to see numerous, numerous doctors, and a doctor, well, and Doctor, Mr. Petit (phonetic) from the Industrial Information in Portsmouth sent me to a Dr. Verilleo (phonetic) first. Dr. Verilleo said he didn't know what to do about any of this. He didn't understand. He wasn't, wasn't acknowledged enough, and he sent me to a Dr. Saenger. Well, Dr. Saenger looked at all my files, -- And this is not all my files. I came very unprepared. If you want all my files, you may have, you may have them. Just, we'll have them packed again.
DR. STEVENSON: Is this the same Dr. Saenger that's been mentioned?
MR. THOMPSON: Yeah, it's the same one. He raped my files.
When I, I left them in good trust. You know, I thought I gave this to Dr. Verillio and I thought -- I used to believe in the system. I used to think I had a good government behind me. I used to think, you know, I could leave my file with a doctor and when I came back I'd get my file back.
But he gave it to another doctor, this Dr. Saenger. And when I get it back, I get about one-fourth of it back. Where's the rest? I don't know. I can't even get any more of it. I can't get it back. It's gone. He raped me. I get $233 a month from that place, two brain surgeries, ear cut off, tumors in both knees, and I get $233 a month retirement, medical retirement. I am sick and tired of it.
THE CHAIR: We need to, to, to break and we're well past the time, but your story is one that at first we were unaware of.
MR. THOMPSON: I haven't even broke the ice.
THE CHAIR: We need you very much to break the ice with staff. Let's see. Let me just find the best person. Who wants to staff-wise -- Would you stand up so we can see you?
Would you turn around, please, sir? This gentleman is waiting to see you, and he is particularly expert, actually, as somebody who you should talk with. And if you would do that we would be most appreciative.
MR. THOMPSON: Okay.
THE CHAIR: Thank you very much.
MS. NORRIS: I just wanted to say thank you. You told a frightening tale with great precision, and we are anxious to hear the rest of it. I hope you will share it with staff.
THE CHAIR: Thank you.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Following Mr. Thompson's death, his wife , Susan, testified at another hearing, telling members that she did not trust the government here. Since a question existed on his plutonium and neptunium exposure, she said that an autopsy would be performed, not in the US, but in CANADA to determine whether these substances were present.
SCOPE -- Site: Reduction Pilot Plant (Huntington)