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.
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.
“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.”
Robert Lindsay began showing signs of illness as early as two year into working at SRS. His family and others were never told why their loved ones were dying. For white workers there was a nuclear laundry so that they did not bring home contaminated clothing to expose their families to radiation. But there was no such laundry for the African American workers so they returned home with radiation on their work clothes and exposed their wives and children. The only thing the families knew were that men like Robert Lindsay came home from work sicker and sicker until one day they could not go back to SRS.
It took ten years for SRS to kill Robert Lindsay. He was driven home from work in 1964 for the last time and died soon after from cancer caused by radiation exposure.
“All I knew was that my father got cancer as a result of working at the bomb plant,” said Beulah Lindsay, Robert Lindsay’s daughter. “That’s all I knew. As Mom would often say, and she was very angry when she would talk about it, she said, ‘They killed Rob. They killed Rob.’”
“A lot of them got exposed and some of them got exposed and exceeded the limit and they kept them in the job,” Aiken County Councilman Willar Hightower said.
Although Hightower had a professional position and was not a laborer at the Site, Hightower also experienced discrimination during his years at a programming lab at SRS. He was the first African American recruited from college to work for the plant and the only one in his department. He was discouraged from talking to other African Americans working at SRS.
“Anytime two or more African Americans got together, they were concerned,” Hightower said. “They wanted to know what was going on over there, what y’all doing. We always had that. Much of that hasn’t changed yet because they just want to know what you’re doing. The only reason I see they wanted to know what you’re doing is because they’ve done you so bad they can’t figure out that you’re not plotting against them.”
After working at SRS for years, Hightower realized he was no longer receiving the promotions or praise he had previously experienced. He talked to other African American SRS workers and began to notice a pattern of racial discrimination. Together, the group filed a class action suit against SRS. Hightower received a $50,000 settlement.
“Somebody got as much as a quarter of a million, and this person was one who had worked in an area, got exposed that exceeded the lifetime limit, and they left him in the area,” Hightower said.
Racial discrimination has haunted SRS throughout its 60 year history. Even the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s biggest, new “state of the art” project, the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, is no exception.
Christy Johnson knew the words, “We’re going to have to lay you off,” were coming when she sat down in her boss’ office. But premonition did not make the words any easier to hear, knowing the only reason for them was her race.
“Where I’m from and how I was brought up, I felt like I was equal and that these people have no right to tell me I’m not,” said Johnson who came to South Carolina from Oceanside, CA. “So I fought for that. There are a lot of people out there who are afraid to say anything.”
Johnson said she was repeatedly overlooked and ignored for a promotion. She was working in the contracts department, but had a degree in Information Technology and was looking for a job in that area.
“In the beginning I was just like maybe it’s not my turn yet,” Johnson said.
But Johnson soon came to realize that the people who were being hired did not have her same credentials and had not gone to college. In at least one case, the new employee’s previous job experience amounted to working as a local cable company installer.
“So after talking to a couple guys and realizing that they don’t have an education, I was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute here. What’s going on?’” Johnson said.
That is when she decided to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for discrimination based on race. The EEOC ruled in her favor. After her termination, she filed a lawsuit and received a settlement from the DOE contractors building the Mixed Oxide facility.
“I see what’s on paper, what they know,” Johnson said. “That’s all I see, that’s all I know. So when I came to the South, it wasn’t about your education. It’s hard to say and it’s sad to say, but I really found out what race and what my color meant when I came to the South.”
The multiple lawsuits and harsh criticism of its practices have not seemed to stop some at SRS. As recently as 2009, SRS manager Jeffrey Allison was moved out of his position. The controversies over who would receive the billions of dollars of President Obama’s Recovery Act monies flowing into the Site had racial overtones.
While some SRS management discriminates against black workers, the reality is everyone in the region – regardless of color – have been misled about the dangers at the Site. South Carolina and Georgia politicians used the conservative and patriotic culture to make sure the health effects at SRS received no serious monitoring. The local hospitals and doctors did not establish tumor registries, and local physicians never spoke out about the effects of the plant on workers and residents. Like any other company town, Aiken and the surrounding communities did not dare challenge a federal government agency that provided high-paying jobs and enriched the communities with contributions and donations.
Aiken was once blessed with northern wealth in the late 19th century, when “winter residents” built “cottages,” much like the mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. The mild winter climate was perfect for their polo matches, hunts, steeplechases and golf. But these estates fell into disrepair during the depression, so the rush of high paying technical and engineering jobs in the 1950s seemed like a blessing.
But with the money came unspoken danger. Unannounced radiation releases into the air exposed children to the most toxic nuclear materials on a regular basis during the 1950s and 1960s. Local officials and residents made no effort to ask questions about what went on at SRS. As a result, today SRS is the most radioactively contaminated single site in the world. Though a Superfund Site, the EPA has no legal power to stop the National Nuclear Security Administration from creating more high-level nuclear waste. The NNSA continues to amass more high-level waste every day at SRS. Since the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility was abandoned, SRS has become the de facto high-level nuclear waste dump for the United States.
In recent weeks, the DOE-appointed Citizens Advisory Board that does “outside environmental monitoring” at the Site has shown signs of abandoning its traditional DOE rubber stamp role and began asking hard questions that had been reserved for environmental critics of SRS. The reality that radioactivity cannot be mitigated, just segregated and stored for the thousands of years it takes to decay, makes the entire Savannah River Site and the communities near it what former DOE official Robert Alvarez says is “a national sacrifice zone.”
Even South Carolina area political officials who have run for office again and again on the vast amounts of federal aid and contractor monies they enjoy are beginning to understand that the state’s reputation as a retirement haven may be less attractive if future retirees are reluctant to purchase homes adjoining the largest high-level waste nuclear dump site in the United States. The increased publicity and wariness toward SRS is making retirement and second homes from Aiken to Hilton Head less appealing.
As the troubled history of SRS becomes more personal to people in the surrounding communities, the acceptance of DOE’s continued pollution may become politically untenable.
“We were basically revisiting what transpired 46 years ago and yet this story is still being told again and it’s still a tragic story,” Richard Lindsay said. “The same elements are there. These are human beings whose lives are being affected and yet there are other people who seem to be indifferent to it. Sometimes I just get a sense that people don’t get it.”