Race and Radiation: The Equal Opportunity Killer at the Savannah River Site #2

By Joseph Trento, on September 6th, 2012 National Security News Service

The old Atomic Energy Commission did not give much thought to where they were going to put their new nuclear weapons processing plant in the 1950s other than it needed to be on the other side of the country from their World War II era facility in Hanford, Washington. The military planners wanted the two campuses as difficult as possible for Soviet bombers to attack simultaneously. The location picked during the Truman administration ended up being in the heart of the segregated South, near Aiken, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia, because the site was large and had access to water for cooling the massive new reactors.

At SRS, five reactors, two separation plants, thousands of miles of pipes and high level nuclear waste storage facilities were built on what amounts to a swamp with the worst earthquake fault in the South running under it. Towns were relocated and the orchards, hunting and fishing grounds that sustained the lives of poor residents were taken over by a country fighting a new kind of war – a cold war. The reactors were built five miles apart so if the Soviets attacked one, the others could survive and keep producing plutonium. Production wastes – deadly to humans – were buried in cardboard boxes in open trenches.

The ugliest of America’s nuclear weapons history is the cavalier way in which the old Atomic Energy Commission and later Department of Energy management allowed African-American workers to be deliberately exposed to radiation at the sprawling Savannah River Site while sparing white workers from the same dangers. The good-old-boy white management at SRS routinely released radiation into the Savannah River. While phone calls were made warning white towns downstream to close their town’s water intakes, often black towns did not get the same courtesy.

Lindsay Family

African-American workers were given the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs and told to drop their dosimeters, which measured their exposure to radiation, in a bucket before going into high-level radiation areas so there would be no cumulative record of dosage. They also were encouraged to bring contaminated food from farms on SRS property home to feed their families.

Bobbie Paul, WAND Executive Director stated: “The racial factors, black and white, are divided,” said Bobbie Paul, Executive Director for Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND). “There’s a power structure that goes on.”

Robert Lindsay was among the first African-Americans to experience racial discrimination at SRS during the cold war. He had been the principal for an all-black high school when he accepted an offer to work at “the bomb plant” in 1952 because he would make more money to support his wife and ten children. He, like many other African Americans at the time, was sent to work in the plant’s most hazardous areas, and he suffered grave consequences.

“He was asked if he had been exposed to any radiation when, in fact, they knew that he couldn’t know that,” said his son Richard Lindsay. “But again, it was about working there. He wanted to be able to continue working. I’m sure he felt pressured to do that, to say that he actually wasn’t exposed.”

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And our government is concerned about “global non-existent” warming!

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